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Why US Olympic heads didn't push Carter to wire

By David F. SalisburyStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 14, 1980



Colorado Springs, Colo.

It was far closer to the "agony of defeat" than to the "thrill of victory" for delegates of the US Olympic Committee (USOC) who voted April 12 to support President Carter's proposed boycott of the Moscow summer games.

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The delegates -- predominantly coaches, ex-athletes, and patron of Olympic sports -- found themselves thrust into the unfamiliar world of real politics where the distinction between victory and defeat are rarely as clear as on the playing field.

The strain was evident Saturday morning as the House of Delegates of the USOC gathered for their moment of truth -- an unprecendented vote that came that afternoon. As a recording of the national anthem blared, the delegates sang along with a pronounced lack of feeling, their expressions wooden and preoccupied.

Within a few hours these 275 Americans would be forced to weigh the desires and First Amendment rights of the athletes they represent, as well as the fine print in the USOC charter, against national security and a courageous, but chiefly symbolic, measure opposing Soviet aggressiion in Afghanistan.

Tthe agony of decision was apparent in the remarks of USOC president robert Kane as he announced the final results. "I am here to represent the athletes. I have spent most of my adult life coaching or administering college athletics. I feel deeply for the individuals who have worked so hard and, because of this, will never have a chance to compete in the olympics."

Still, by an almost 2-to-1 margin, the delegates cast their votes in favor of a boycott. Patriotism and the considerable pressure applied by the White House carried the day. But few, if any, voted without major reservations. Besides dashing the hopes of US athletes, this reluctance stemmed from concern over the effect that such a step will have on the Olympic movement.

The consequences of voting to send a team to Moscow were clearly negative. In the first quarter of this year USOC fund raising was $1.2 million under its goal of $4.2 million, executive director F. Don Miller reported. White house lobbying already had cost the committee at least one major corporate donation, and it was obvious that public disapproval and President Carter's effort to discourage donations would intensify if the committee members defied him.

Furthermore, the administration had made it clear that other matters, such as the tax-exempt status of Olympic organizations, would be scrutinized in such an eventuality.

"We thought we were pretty independent, but we found out just how much pressure the president can bring to bear," says one USOC staff member, adding, "There is quite a bit of resentment as a result."

The probable repercussions of a US boycott are more difficult to predict. Some fear that it could lead to an end of the global character of the Olympic Games. In the last two weeks, the Soviet Olympic Commission has implied that if the US boycott the games this summer the USSR may stay away from the 1984 games in Los Angeles.

"There is no question but this is a serious blow to the Olympic movement," commented Robert Helmick, head of the Amateur Athletic Union. He believes it possible that the ultimate effect could be separate Western and Eastern Competitions after 1984.

Offsetting these new concerns, at least in part, were White House and congressional promises of increased financial support for amateur athletics if the USOC agreed to the boycott. Vice-President Walter Mondale, addressing the delegates Saturday morning, reiterated these inducements: "We recognize the tremendous sacrifice we are asking of sports officials. But, on behalf of the President of the united States, I assure you that our nation will do everything within its power to ensure the success of the Los Angeles games; to help the Olympic Committee restore its finances; to provide even greater assistance to the development of amateur sport. . . ." In particular, $16 million that was authorized under the National Sports Act but never appropriated will be turned over to the USOC, it now appears.