Britons in Olympic muddle

Many Britons are wondering uneasily whether to wish their athletes well or to be ashamed of them. The dilemma centers on the decision of the British Olympic Committee to attend the Moscow Olympic Games in defiance of government pressure to boycott the games.

The last-ditch effort by the British foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, to persuade Olympic organizers to boycott the games in protest over Soviet presence in Afghanistan was rebuffed in mid-June. He was reportedly told by the BOC that his government's "hamfisted" handling of the matter was "like going through a mine field in hobnailed boots."

On the other hand, comments about the Olympic committeemen range from "thick as two planks" to "cement from the ankles up." "We have not seen in them an ability to see a war when there is a war on," says a government observer.

Underlying the animosity are some changes that may linger beyond the final awards ceremony in August.

One shift involves financing. From his modest office under a sixth-floor skylight near Oxford Circus, the appeals secretary of the British Olympic appeal (BOA), George Nicholson, told the Monitor about the mixture of individual contributions, corporate donations, and commercial sponsorship that was to have made up the L900,000 ($2.1 million) goal.

So far, only L726,000 ($1.7 million) has been collected. Of that, L248,000 ( traditionally the strong supporters. The handpicked 100 -- man Appeal Council that was to have orchestrated corporate support from City of London boardrooms, voted to stand down rather than go against government policy -- thus cutting of some L200,000 ($470,000) the BOA expected them to raise.

Also far behind the mark is the sale of T- shirts, mugs, and other souvenirs. They were offered to retailers in the first months of this year, when few dared buy them in bulk for fear that the games might be scrapped.

To Mr. Nicholson's delight, however, the number of individual contributors has already doubled over previous years. "With all the publicity, many people were aware for the fist time that the BOA existed," he says. He also asserts that every opinion poll here has shown that some 60 percent of the nation think thecontributions, he says, come from those who felt it was "time to show their support." Trade unins and local councils (municipal governments) have greatly increased their giving -- "a very remarkable change," says Mr. Nicholson, and one perhaps aimed as a slap toward the government.

Such change, argues Mr. Nicholson, is healthy, as it weans the BOA from its heavy reliance on a single group of supporters.

Another change is the relation of sport to politics. Olympic officials object to British athletes being singled out and asked to sacrifice four years of training when the government is unwilling to sacrifice trade links.

"If the government should decide to embark on a policy of sanctions against the USSR, we are quite sure that the individual sportsmen would play their part, " says Mr. Nicholson. He finds it "monstrous" that atletes "should be treated as expendable political pawns."

But pro-boycott observers note that, for the Russians, sport and politics are one. They point to the propaganda mileage the Russians are already making from the British presence in Moscow -- interviewing Richard Palmer, general secretary of the BOA, on Moscow Radio, and cherishing pro-Olympic comments by runner Sebastian Coe, who seems set to win a gold.

"The reality is that if you're there, you're going to be exploited," grumbles one government official.

How many athletes will Britain send? Michael Blake, the BOA's assistant general secretary, says they budgeted for "somewhat in excess of 400" competitors. With the hockey, yachting, and equestrian teams not going, and a few individuals in other events staying away, the number has dropped to "300 plus."

Will the controversy spell the end of the Olympics?"Far from it," argues Mr. Nicholson, who says it has shown that national olympic committees have the courage to "stand up to varying government pressures." Although 28 countries (including the United States, Canada, West Germany, and Japan) are not going, 85 others will be there -- only three short of the 88 that attended the 1976 games in Montreal.

Mr. Nicholson admits, however, that "probably on reflection everybody agrees that it was rather unfortunate" to have chosen Moscow in the first place.

As for the future, he expects great pressure to examine the possiblity of holding the games permanently in Greece or Switzerland.

Unless a permanent site is chosen, he fears that totalitarian governments may be the only ones able and willing to host the games in the future. He cites the feasiblity study by the Greater London Council into holding the games in London in 1988 -- a study pigeonholed because of its massive cost -- as evidence that taxpayers in democracies may not want the games, either because of the expense or because of the impact on the environment.

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