The idea of boycotting the Olympic Games in Moscow has strong merit -- if the boycott is an internationally supported one. We can think of nothing that would make such a strong moral statement or have greater psychological impact on the Russians. The Soviet Union is investing enormous financial and political effort in the games and withdrawal from them would frustate its long-sought goal: international respectability. By showing that they can put on a successful world competition of this magnitude, the Soviets seek to demonstrate they have come of age and are entitled to the full prestige and status of a modern power. Depriving them of the opportunity to do this would be a tremendous blow -- and a pointed message that playing a world bully has its penalties.
It would be a blow not only to a Soviet leadership striving for legitimacy, as close watchers of the Russian scene put it. It would be keenly felt by the Soviet people, who want better relations with the outside world. A boycott would demonstrate to those who have a stake in changing the totalitarian Soviet system (and we are not speaking of dissidents but of the intelligentsia generally) that their government's self-willed policies do have a cost. Similarly will economic hardships caused by the boycott of grain and high technology to the USSR help discredit the Soviet arrangement, under strong pressure to satisfy rising consumer expectations. Seeing the world stand up to the Kremlin would perhaps embolden more Soviets to press for a humanizing of the system. In the long run, that offers the best hope of peace.
The argument that the games should not be politicized has validity of course. But, in many ways, they are already. National, political, and even ethnic and racial rivalries often have been and are a factor in the competitions. The Soviet Union and its allies themselves exploit sports for political ends and would aggressively use the Olympic Games to propagandize their ideology and policies.
But the question should be asked: is there not some boundary of action beyond which a big world power cannot go if it expects to be treated like a civilized nation? At issue, after all, is not the Soviet Union's internal repression or some isolated political conflict. It involves the calculated invasion of a small country by one of the world's two dominant powers, which between them share the role of keeping the global peace. That role entails acting responsibly in the international arena. In hindsight, many agree that it would have been better to ostracize the 1936 Olympics in Hitler-dominated Berlin.
There are, to be sure, some compelling arguments on the other side of the issue. In an increasingly turbulent world, when political conflicts enter so forcefully and often harmfully into the affairs of men, should not every effort be made to abide by the rules of an international forum where the intent is to submerge politics and enable nations to associate in peaceful competition? We think, too, of the competing individuals themselves, who are breaking down physical and mental barriers and in this way fostering human progress. Is it fair to disrupt their lives and prodigious efforts by either cancelling the games or moving them elsewhere at this point?
Nor can one ignore the positive impact for the noncommunist world of the Soviet Union's vast investment in a civilian endeavor -- one which, in addition to bringing thousands of outsiders into contact with the Soviet people, strains the nation's resources to the extreme. One diplomatic wag suggests a more fitting "punishment" for the Russians would be to flood Moscow with twice as many visitors.
For all this, it comes down to how strongly the world community feels about naked military aggression and what sacrifice it is willing to make to register its concern. We believe President Carter is justified in raising the possibility of an Olympic boycott and testing the waters for reaction from others. Indeed if there is to be a boycott we feel it should be the result of a gathering consensus of international concern and not of a drive led by the United States. Such a move would have to be perceived as the outcome of genuine moral outrage and not of diplomatic arm-twisting.
For the president, perhaps, the mere threat of nonparticipation may be sufficient to have some effect on Soviet actions, although it would be naive to think it will force the Russians out of Afghanistan. The next few weeks may bring to light a clearer international mood. If the Russians do not recall their combat troops and world sentiment does in fact mount for withdrawal from the Olympic games in Moscow -- and some nations already have spoken out in favor -- we would support the hard decision to boycott.