Politics vaults into Moscow Olympics limelight
World politics has begun to overshadow sports events at the Moscow Olympic Games and embarras the Kremlin, which wants to project a calm, nonpolitical image.Skip to next paragraph
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At least two members of the Afghanistan Olympic team have made repeated, clandestine approaches to Western journalists, saying they want publicity to help them defect to the West. They say publicity is their last hope of escaping from their Russian-dominated homeland.
And an Italian activist chose Red Square, the heart of communism itself in the Soviet Union, to try to hold up a banner in defense of dissidents and of gay rights.
His causes were less important right now than his effort to use the massive news-media coverage of an Olympic Games as a forum for political matters -- and less important than KGB agents reacting with ferocity and what many on the scene described as unnecessary violence and threats.
Olympic sports events are well under way in superb stadiums, pools, and other facilities. They are generating world records and a keen rivalry between Soviet hosts and their allies in East Germany to win the most medals. The opening ceremony July 19 was spectacular.
But politics -- the effects of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the magnet of media coverage -- are very much in evidence.
The US and Western Europe are awash with reports that Afghan team members want to defect.Despite official Afghan denials to this correspondent and others in the Olympic Village July 21, the reports are damaging to Soviet prestige. It was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that triggered the US boycott last January.
Defection reports emerged when CBS-TV and radio broadcast a report in the United States saying severeal team members were making "desperate efforts" to defect. Reportedly, they said they knew security around them would be tightened if they spoke out. But they felt publicity was their last chance to escape.
The Afghan soccer team defected to West Germany earlier this year. Seven Afghan wrestlers walked three days over mountains to defect to Pakistan in early July.
CBS says it had its story five days earlier but held off for fear of causing reprisals for the Afghan athletes. But when it learned that British commercial television news (ITN) had run a story about the Afghan team, it decided to go ahead July 20.
CBS contacted the US Embassy in Moscow with its information.Embassy officials confirmed the contact but said they were powerless to help the Afghans. It is understood the Afghans have not contacted the embassy directly.
The ITAN correspondent, Martyn Lewis, told me he met twice with an Afghan athlete several days ago. The man was extremely nervous and would not speak within earshot of officials. Twice he repeated that he wanted to defect to Pakistan and that five other team members also wanted to defect.
Mr. Lewis did not report this directly, but made only a brief reference to team members being upset. "There were even indications," his braodcast said July 15, "that some would welcome an early opportunity to leave Afghanistan for good." The braodcast did not attract under attention in Britain.
The Associated Press in Moscow sent out its own story, saying two Afghan team members wanted to defect. AP cited one man as saying he wanted to join his brother, who had defected earlier to Pakistan and then to the US. The men reportedly said a total of five wanted to defect now.
Inside the Olympic village July 21, members of the Afghan team stood and sat in a group in the open-air area where shops and restaurants are located. They wore blue track suits with the letters AFG stenciled on the backs in white.
Repeatedly they denied any of them wanted to defect. Deputy boxing coach Suliman Muhammad termed the reports "false." He spoke in the Pashto language, through an interpreter.
TV reporter Lewis quietly pointed out to me the man he had talked to a few days before. This newspaper has his name. But in front of coaches, officials, and teammates, the man denied he had ever talked to Mr. Lewis or even met him.
Meanwhile Italian tourist and activist Vincenzo Franconi tried to raise a banner in Red Square on behalf of gay rights and dissidents, including Lithuanina human-rights campaigner Viktoras Pyatkus. Police and plainclothes agents, apparently well aware of his plans, jumped on him.
French reporters on the scene say agents kicked Mr. Franconi in the face and in the side and then hustled him into a black car.
Agents seized UPI Moscow bureau chief John Moody briefly, then let him go. They struck and smashed a camera and a pair of glasses belonging to French reporter Andre Birukoff.
Agents seized an NBC-TV film camera and took the film from it. They also emptied the film from several still cameras. It was the kind of demonstration the Kremlin has been trying to prevent during the games.