Not so Olympian

Two observations might be made about the international boycott of the Olympic Games soon under way in Moscow. One is its successful political message. It shows that some nations felt strongly enough about the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan to go to considerable lengths to make what is after all largely a symbolic protest. It will not force the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. It will not influence the Politburo. But without question it is a vivid moral statement which costs the Soviet Union in prestige and honor.

Secondly, the boycott demonstrates just how resistant sports are to political pressure. The United States found it harder than it expected to bring its own athletes and allies along. Ironically, in the US it was often those with hard-line foreign policy views who opposed the boycott. In Europe, too, leaders and public have criticized the US for lack of leadership, yet when President Carter urged concerted action many governments could not persuade their athletes and sports officials to cooperate. We confess to disappointment over what seems a hypocritical stand.

Nonetheless, the boycott is substantial and is bound to have an impact. Some 80 countries are not represented in the games, including such towering competitors as West Germany and Japan. Some countries which are attending have only small teams. Others will register their "protest" over Afghanistan in different ways -- by not using their national flags, for instance, or by not marching in the opening and closing ceremonies. Since many of the greatest athletes are not competing, many of the gold medals won in Moscow will be devalued. The luster usually characterizing an Olympic extravaganza is thus gone. Moscow, in addition to losing thousands of tourists, must also live with its embarrassment.

It would be a mistake, of course, to exaggerate the political effect of the boycott on Soviet citizenry at large. Most everyday Muscovites are more concerned about the availability of food and consumer goods than the diplomatic transgressions of a regime over which they have no control. But members of the intelligentsia who do have a stake in liberalizing the Soviet system will be incensed by the cost their nation pays because of its ruthless policies. In the eyes of many, the kremlin cannot but be further discredited. We can only imagine, too, the thoughts of the people of Estomia, where the yachting competition opens on the 40th anniversary of the incorporation of that once-free country into the USSR.

Beyond the immediate drama in Moscow is the larger question of how the Olympic Games should be reformed in the future. Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, struck the right note when he praised those teams in Moscow who had decided not to use their national flags and criticized the excessive "chauvinism, flag waving and anthem playing" at the Games. Surely there is merit in depoliticizing the Olympics by having athletes compete in their own right and name, even though the Games might lose some of their flavor and excitement. The proposal to put the Olympics in a permanent site also impresses us as politically and financially sensible. The point is that you cannot invest athletic competitions with jingoistic trappings or locate them in countries which use sports for political purposes -- and then expect to keep politics out of sports.

Those many disappointed fine athletes who are not at the Moscow Games deserve the commendation of their countrymen. The Olympic system may need changing. But until it is changed their willingness to respond to their governments' call for a boycott should be seen as a worthy contribution to peace -- a testimony that lovers of freedom do care.

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