The 1980 Olympics will undoubtedly be a lavish spectacle replete with thrilling moments, record-breaking performances, and exciting new champions. But how much more they might have been!
The Soviets know how to put on a show, as they demonstrated at their Spartakiad Games a year ago with an opening ceremony rivaling anything ever seen at the Olympics themselves. And that was just a dress rehearsal; they've promised an even bigger extravaganza for the real thing, which takes place Saturday before a capacity crowd of more than 100,000 in Lenin Central Stadium.
As for the competition, running from July 20 through Aug. 3, how can it miss with such famous name as Nadia Comaneci, Lasse Viren, Nelli Kim, Alberto Juantorena, Sebastian Coe, and Steve Ovett heading a star-studded list of participants?
They will still be the Olympics, all right; make no mistake about that. But the US-led boycott ensures that no matter how good the competition is, it just can't possibly pack the emotional and dramatic wallop to which we've become accustomed in these quadrennial gatherings.
The excessive nationalism exemplified by flag-waving, anthems, medal-counting , etc. is frequently cited as an unfortunate side effect of the Olympics, and one that should be done away with. Perhaps this is true. Certainly it has its negative aspects. Yet it is this very same nationalism -- particularly in terms of East-West confrontation, and most of all in the case of the United States vs. the USSR -- that lends the games their unique flavor and produces some of their most memorable moments.
One need look back no further than Lake Placid and the excitement that swept an entire nation over a single hockey victory to demonstrate this fact. The game wasn't even for the gold medal (that came later in the final contest against Finland), but the Americans had beaten "the Russians" -- and the whole country went wild in celebration.
It's the same for the Soviets, too. Valery Borzov didn't become a national hero in 1972 just because he beat the Americans at their Soviet athletes do that), but because he beat the Americans at their own game in the dashes. At the same Munich Games, the Soviets were practically delirious after finally upsetting the United States (albeit with a little help from their officiating friends) in basketball. Conversely, when the Americans regained the gold medal four years later in Montreal, the thrill was lessened by the fact that the USSR had lost to Yugoslavia in the semifinals, preventing another head-to-head matchup.
So in terms of competition, drama, and overall excitement, everybody loses this time. And of course it isn't only the United States that will be absent; more than a score of other nations, large and small, are following the US lead and skipping the games because of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan. Included are such perennial Olympic powers as West Germany (fourth overall in medals at Montreal), Japan (fifth in the 1976 medal count, and always a big winner in its specialties such as men's gymnastics, judo, and volleyball), and Kenya (a major track power). In addition, some of the participating nations are at less than full strength due to defections by individuals or entire teams in particular sports.
The effect of all this on the competition will obviously differ markedly from sport to sport (and even from event to event within a particular sport). Those events traditional dominated by the Eastern bloc and other participating nations are hardly affected at all. The rest will suffer varying degrees of damage, with a few absolutely devastated and the others watered down to varying degrees.
In overall terms, the USSR and East Germany were going to finish 1-2 in gold medal anyway, just as they did at Montreal, but now they will simply annihilate the rest of the field. The Soviets, with their huge advantage in numbers and consequent greater depth, will undoubtedly benefit most from the vacuum created by the boycott, and should finish far in front in the overall medal count. The East Germans, with a population of only 17 million, are stretched a bit thinner than the host nation in trying to compete at the top level in so many sports. They may well make it a close battle with the USSR in terms of gold medals just as they did at Montreal (47-40), but in the overall count, including silver and bronze, they will probably have to settle for a fairly distant second place, though still well ahead of any other nation. After that it's wide open among the other communist countries, those Western nations competing (Great Britain, France, Italy, etc.), and various third world and other countries making up the rest of the entry list.
There are 23 sports on the program at Moscow, but as always it is track and field that will attract the lion's share of attention, and this perennial centerpiece of the games is somewhere in the middle in terms of how it is affected by the boycott. The absence of the US men who regularly top all other nations in both gold and overall medals, will significantly detract from many individual events and from the competition as a whole. Ditto to a lesser extent in the case of the Kenyans, the West germans, the US women, and individual standouts from other countries. But despite all thes minus factors, there will still be enough top competitors and dramatic matchup to whet the appetite of even the most casual sports enthusiast.
For openers we have Lasse Viren, the amazing Finn who already has etched his name right up there with those of his famous countryman Paavo Nurmi and Czechoslovakia's Emil Zapotek as one of the all-time great Olympic distance runners. Viren won both the 5,000 and 10,000 at Munich, then repeated that double at Montreal and came close to making it a triple by finishing fifth in the marathon even though he had to run it with no rest the day after the 5,000 final.
Such an attempt isn't possible this year, for even Viren would have a hard time running through the streets of Moscow and simultaneously dashing around the track at the stadium, where the 5,000 will be going on the same time. He'll run the 10,000 earlier in the program, and he seems to be leaning toward the marathon for his other effort. But whatever his choice -- and despite his past record -- Lasse is no cinch to win two more gold medals, or even one.
To begin with, he must contend with Ethiopia's great distance runner Miruts Yifter, who missedthe 1976 Olympics due to the African boycott but who won the 5 ,000 and 10,000 in both the 1977 and 1979 World Cup meets and also at the Spartakiad Games here last year.
Viren, who stays out of the limelight in non-Olympic years, didn't compete in any of those races, but he did lose to Yifter in a half- marathon in Puerto Rico last February. So it should be interesting, and of course these two will be challenged by a number of other top runners all eager for the glory that would come from defeating such famous names.
The other glamour events on the track and field program, at least in pre-Olympic speculation, are the men's 800 and 1,500 meter races -- both featuring prospective duels between Great Britain's world record-breaking pair og Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Coe, of course, burst into prominence last summer when in one incredible 41-day span he shattered the world marks at 800 meters, 1,500 meters, and the for 1,000 meters. Later in the same meet, however , Ovett erased Coe's year-old mile mark with a 3:48.8 clocking. Then this week, just four days before the start of the Olympics, Ovett tied Coe's 1,500-meter mark on the same Oslo track.
The two Britons are not exactly friendly, and in fact have studiously avoided facing each other in their pre-Olympic schedules. They'll have to meet here, however -- presumably in both the 800 and the 1,500. They won't have the track to themselves, either, even though the boycott has eliminated some top prospective rivals in each race.
The biggest question mark among the top names scheduled to compete concerns Juantorena. The Cuban was an absolutely devastating racing machine at Montreal, winning both the 400 and 800 in a performance of such dominance and versatility that many observers thought he -- rather than Viren -- was the oustanding track and field performer of the games. He has been inconsistent and bothered by injuries since then, but even if he is not in peak form here there are other runners capable of making a race of it in the 800, and also in the 1,500.
In the women's competition, the East Germans look awesome, with Marita Koch and Marlie Gohr leading what could be near sweeps of the shorter distances, Ruth Fuchs shooting for a third straight javelin gold medal, and a host of top performers in most other events. The Soviets counter with defending 800 and 1, 500 meter champion Tatyana Kazankina, who showed her readiness by breaking her own world record in the latter event two weeks ago, plus plenty of other strong medal contenders up and down the line.
Men's gymnastics, which once figured to be a treat three-way battle among traditional powers Japan and the USSR plus a resurgent US team lead by Kurt Thomas, is now reduced to a Soviet walkover. On the women's side, where no nation outside the Eastern bloc has won a single Olympic medal since 1964, it looks like a rematch of Montreal, with Nadia Comaneci and her Romanian teamates battling Nelli Kim and her Soviet colleagues, with the East Germans cast in the role of dark horse contenders.
Swimming, where a deep and talented US team figured to dominate the men's events as usual and also to regain its supremacy in the women's competition, is without question the major sport most decimated by the boycott. The absence of the American men, who won 12 of the 13 gold medals at Montreal and would have been heavily favored again, obviously renders any victories at Moscow relatively meaningless. And the US women, after losing their accustomed No. 1 spot to the East Germans in 1976, had defeated those rivals in two big meets since then and were expected to reclaim the majority of the gold medals in Moscow. So that competition, too, will produce mostly hollow victories.
Most of these victories, of course, will accrue to the East Germans, with Pietra Schneider the individual most likely to emerge as the successor to Montreal superstar Kornelia ender as the leading light of this year's "Fearsome Frauleins."
Among the men, according to US Coach George Haines, it is the Soviets who will jump into the vacuum. "They'll be at home, eating their own food, swimming in their own pool, and undoubtedly housed nearby while the others have long bus rides back and forth," Haines noted. "Also, they've been making a big push for several years with an eye on the Moscow Games. I think they have a good chance to dominate."
Boxing, where th United States had such a big success in Montreal with its array of exciting fighters (Sugar Ray Leonard, Leon Spinks, etc.) and its five gold medals, is another sport that is hit hard. Cuba figures to be the chief beneficiary here, with the ubiquitous Soviets once again getting a few more medals than they figured to otherwise.
In basketball, the absence of the United States leaves the USSR in the driver's seat, although Yugoslavia cannot be overlooked. The Yugoslav's in fact , defeated the Soviets in 13 consecutive international meetings dating back to 1974 (including the 1976 Olympic semifinal) before the streak was snapped in last year's European championships. They've undergone some coaching turmoil recently, however, and in any event, says US Coach Dave Gavit, the big and talented Soviet squad led by 7ft., 4in. center Vladimir Tachenko will be very hard to beat on its home court. The Yugoslavs should repeat their Montreal silver, with the bronze up for grabs in a very diluted field containing only five of the original 12 qualifiers.
Among other sports, archery, diving, equestrian, field hockey, judo, modern pentathlon, shooting, wrestling, yachting, and volleyball are all more or less seriously diminished by the boycott, some others like cycling and rowing are at least somewhat affected, while such competitions as canoeing, fencing, team handball, soccer, water polo, and weightlifting will hardly notice the difference.