Third-world athletes: few medals but a special role

The powerful East German backstroke swimmer thrashed the water in a last-second surge. Her hand slapped the edge of the pool, television cameras zoomed in close, and the crowd in Moscow's new Olympic swimming stadium leaped to its feet to acclaim another world record.

Few bothered to glance back down the pool where are tiny figure still labored toward the finish of the 100-meter backstroke, heat four. The other swimmers prepared to leave the water. The crowd settled down.

But still Thi Hong Bich Nguyen swam doggedly on, until at last she finished, 7th out of seven, almost 15 seconds behind a British swimmer in 6th place, and almost 20 seconds behind the winner.

The performance by the vietnamese girl highlighted one feature of all Olympic Games -- and one particularly applicable to Moscow.

All games are filled with athletes from small countries who never make it into the public eye, who compete for experience and for the honor of representing their countries. Yet in Moscow, athletes like Thi Hong Bich Nguyen fill an essential role in overall Soviet political aims.

Soviet television, radio, and press -- particularly the official news agency, Tass, which goes around the world -- hammer away every hour at the fact that Asian, African, Latin American, and other third-world countries are represented at the games.

Their faces appear on TV screens, in broadcasts, and in newspaper pages. "The Olympics serve the cause of building trust," Tass quoted an Angolan official, Augusto Lopez Teixeira, as saying. The Kremlin is proud of its ability to organize the games -- and determined to use the games to boost its own prestige in the third world as part of its long-term effort to diminish US and Chinese influence wherever it can.

Soviet officials do not make any secret of their ambitions. They do not speak of them openly during the games themselves, since the official line now is that sports and politics should not mix -- even though officials agree sport does not exist in a vacuum.

But a country like Vietnam is vital to Soviet strategic interests in Asia. It is Moscow's main Asian ally, its partner in trying to contain the influence of Peking.

So Thi Hong Bich Nguyen represents not only an athlete from a country long preoccupied with matters other than swimming, but also a prize political asset.

Her time of 1 minute, 20.34 seconds was a long way from world-class. But her presence here, with other Vietnamese athletes, is satisfying to the Soviets -- who are reported to have paid travel and accommodation expenses for the Vietnamese and as many as 39 other teams.

The launching of a Vietnamese cosmonaut on July 23 also has political overtones, as does the presence of the Afghan Olympic team.

The 100,000 spectators at the games July 19 opening ceremonies roared approval when the team entered Lenin Stadium behind the black, red, and green Afghan flag symbolizing the pro-Moscow government installed when Soviet troops moved into Kabul last December.

Later, Tass denied reports that several members of the team to defect to the West. But Western newsmen stand by their reports that at least two of them have made repeated approaches to them, saying five in all want to go to Britain or the United States. Publicity about the team's unhappiness embarrassed Moscow -- but the Soviets still feel that the team has represented a political plus despite its lack of sporting traditions.

When I talked to the team at the Olympic Village, Chief trainer Pyotr Matushak (a Russian) said all felt and were happy in Moscow.

In the 45,000-seat covered stadium built for Olympic boxing and basketball, a boxer from Laos was hopelessly outclassed by an opponent from Britain; a welterweight from Benin did all he could to get out of the way of a skilled Cuban before being knocked out.

Both men gained experience. Both represent countries important to Soviet political aims in the third world.

A weightlifter from Nepal, Ashokkumor Karki, took up the sport only six months ago. Yet he is here, finishing 18th in his category (up to 56 kg); his teammate Rejandra Pradan was 15th in a heavier category.

The Tass news agency chose to quote both men on its world service as praising the "wonderful conditions for training, rest, and recreation" at the Moscow games.

The team from Zimbabwe is often mentioned in the press, as are teams from other black African countries such as Uganda and Ethiopia.

Meanwhile, the political side of the games is evident in the official guests being welcomed here -- not only leaders of Eastern Europe and the party chief of Mongolia, but also Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization; Oliver Tambo, president of the banned African National Congress in South Africa; and Pen Sovan, defense minister of the Vietnamese-backed, pro-Soviet government of Cambodia.

All three, representing opinion important to Soviet diplomacy, have been allowed to address Soviet television viewers. They praised the games and opposed the boycott.

But the ambassadors of the US and France were not permitted on television on their national days in July because both wanted to refer to Soviet policies in Afghanistan.

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