The modern Olympics' five symbolic rings, representing five continents, are being pulled as never before in the 84-year history of these international athletic contests.

"The very existence of the Olympic Games, the Olympic movement, and the organization of sports through the international federations is at stake," says Lord Killanin, head of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In this view, the United States decision, following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, to lead a boycott of the Moscow summer games could douse the Olympic flame forever -- unless some way is found to trim the growth of global politics around one of humanity's most enduring ideals.

Americans have been the backbone of the Olympics ever since they won the most medals at the opening of the modern games in Athens in 1896. But now the Carter administration is determined not to attend the 1980 Moscow games. US officials say they cannot "lend the Olympic mantle" to a nation that has invaded another.

The intrusion of politics is nothing new to the Olympic Games. Even the ancient Olympics, first held in 776 BC in Greece, were shaken by political and military disputes.

In 420 BC, Sparta was excluded from the games because of a war with Elis, guardian of Olympia. Later, Philip of Macedonia erected a building at Olympia to remind Greeks of his victory over them in 338 BC. The Roman civil wars that followed Julius Caesar's death in 44 BC caused the games to be diminished temporarily. And they were finally banned altogether in AD 393 by the then Christian Emperor Theodosius.

Today's self-appointed IOC is an unashamed autocracy of 89 independent committee members, backed up by Olympic committees in 134 nations and by 26 international federations representing the various Olympic sports. But it, too, has often been caught in the grinding of international wills.

Three times the IOC has canceled the modern games because of war: in 1916, 1940, and 1944. The 1920 games were known as the "allied games," with Germany and Austria excluded. Germany and Japan were banned in 1948 as part of a penalty for war. Israel, South Africa, Rhodesia, and Taiwan have all been excluded from the games at various times.

In 1952 the Soviet Union entered the games for the first time after years of boycotting what it considered such "bourgeois" activities. Thereafter, the two titans, the US and the USSR wrestled for national prestige, pressing for an advantage in political propaganda by claiming the most medals.

Today, the IOC is considering several Olympic reforms to diminish the growing nationalistic pressures. These include eliminating symbols of nationalism; cutting out team sports, which can too easily imitate battles between nations; reducing the size of the games; letting athletes come as individuals rather than as members of national teams; holding the Olympics in one permanent site; awarding only one medal in each event, and only if a record is broken, thus athletes compete against a standard rather than a nation.

The IOC is trying to restore the Olympics to what Sir Roger Bannister, ex-Olympian and first four- minute miler, calls "one of the great leavening forces for good in the 20th century."

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