Despite Kremlin's smiling facade, Olympic boycott erodes prestige
Moscow — Outwardly, the Kremlin is serenely confident. It blandly dismisses the boycott movement of the Moscow Olympic Games as a "failure." Unkempt Soviet taxi drivers are still being fitted for new uniforms. Waiters are learning how top say, "Today we have special Olympic ice cream" -- in English and other languages.
Ten thousand new flags are on order to adorn city streets. And 150 tons of rarely seen bananas are to be delivered to the spacious Olympic village. New road signs and an estimated billion dollars of new construction have changed the face of the cities where Olympic events are to be held: Moscow, Kiev, Leningrad, Minsk, and Tallinn.
But inwardly, the Soviets are thought to recognize that the boycott bites deep into Soviet prestige in two ways, according to Western sources here.
First, the official figure of 29 boycotting countries, released by the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, May 27, is too low. At least ten more countries, included so far among the 27 on the "have not replied" list, have already said they are definite boycotters.
Second, the boycott strikes hardest at individual sports. For example:
Although the Australian Olympic Committee decided to send a team to the games (against its government's wishes), Australian yachtsmen will not compete in the Olympic regatta. Australian women's volleyball and hockey players also have decided to boycott.
The British team is coming to Moscow -- but its equestrian team and its yachstmen are staying away. The French, also coming, are considering a boycott by their equestrian team. British hockey players are not expected to come.
"So when Soviet citizens turn on their television sets to watch the games," says one Western source, "they can hardly fail to notice that there are none of the world-class Japanese gymnasts [Japan is a boycotter]. The equestrian events will be below world class -- no Americans, West Germans, and maybe no French.
"With the US, West Germany, Canada, Japan, and Kenya all boycotting, athletics, swimming, wrestling, basketball, ice hockey, gymnastics, and men's and women's volleyball will all be well below Olympic standards. . . ."
So despite their reassuring claims of "victory" over the US-led boycott movement, the Soviets are faced with an athletically depleted Olympics.
Their big effort now is to try to divert world attention away from this and to insist that the games are a political success.
Although the Soviets claim the games are completely separate from politics, almost all their actions argue otherwise.
The Kremlin views the games as a propaganda exercise. Before the boycott Moscow had hopes of a live, worldwide audience of TV viewers led by US NBC-TV beaming a barrage of Soviet achievements into countless living rooms.
Now the TV audience for live coverage is reduced. NBC has pulled out. The boycott movement has generated headlines.
Moscow is forced to tell its own people that a significant number of countries is staying away, and tries to blame it on American spite. Seldom is the word "Afghanistan" mentioned here in connection with the games.
Sometimes President Carter is accused of using the boycott in his re-election campaign.
On May 27, after the IOC announced that 85 countries had agreed to compete, the news agency Tass released a statement by chief Soviet games official Ignaty Novikov.
He said the 85 figure shoed the boycott had failed.
Mr. Nivikov echoed the IOC figure of 29 boycotters (revised downward from 36 earlier in the day in Lausanne) and said 28 had not replied to official invitations by May 24, the official deadline. (The IOC figure was 27 for countries not replying.)
He also confirmed the IOC decision to overlook the May 24 deadline. Some Westerners believe this breaks Olympic rules. Observers say the IOC and Moscow deciced on that course to salvage as many competitors as possible.
Western sources here, examining the 29 countries that failed to reply by May 24, found at 10 least that had announced a boycott months beforehand -- raising the actual boycotters to almost 40. Sources said the final figure could be above 50.
Mr. Novikov May 27 also stressed another political theme: Many Soviet allies would be competing in their first games in Moscow, among them Vietnam, Laos, and Angola. The Soviets are reportedly giving allies and many African states huge financial help to attend.
Meanwhile more than 90 percent of the games tickets have been sold despite a drop-off in US and Canadian visitors.
Articles warn that the US Central Intelligence Agency wil try to infiltrate agents disguised as tourists. Jewish and other dissidents have been moved out of games cities either by exile or arrest or other pressure.