On the same day that the Soviet Union announced that it would not be sending its athletes to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics, reports confirmed that Andrei Sakharov had begun a hunger strike to protest the authorities' refusal to allow his wife, Yelena Bonner, to travel abroad to seek medical treatment and visit family members in the United States.
In light of the Sakharovs' predicament, there is a remarkable - although surely unintended - irony in some of the wording of the text of the official Soviet statement on that country's pullout from the Olympic Games. Among the spurious allegations made were ''rude violations of the rules'' governing preparation and conduct of the games, claims that the US did not intend to ''respect the rights and human dignity'' of all athletes attending the games, and that with the connivance of the US government ''extremist organizations'' were aiming to create ''unbearable conditions'' for the Soviet athletes. That's right - unbearable conditions! This from the masters of the Kremlin. From the regime that cruelly exiles Nobel Prize Winner Andrei Sakharov, denies medical treatment to Yelena Bonner, and for years has engaged in a campaign of calumny and persecution against a man who chooses only to speak his conscience.
Ask the thousands of Soviet Jews who want to emigrate about ''unbearable conditions.'' Ask what it means to wait for years - even decades - for the exit visa that doesn't come. Ask about losing a job because you want to leave - and then get arrested for ''parasitism.'' The Pentecostal Christians - and others - denied the right to instruct their children privately in their religion could give you a good idea about ''unbearable conditions.''
Members of the Helsinki monitoring groups are languishing in prison because they only wanted their government to keep the promises it made when Leonid Brezhnev solemnly signed the Helsinki Final Act in l975.
It's curious to read a statement from Soviet officials complaining about conditions in Los Angeles when their own citizens who dare to complain or criticize the Soviet leadership in any way end up in places of internal exile or in prisons, labor camps, or psychiatric hospitals. People die of the treatment they receive in these places. The point of sending someone there, of course, is so that the individual can rehabilitate himself, come out a new - and less outspoken - man, and be welcomed back into Soviet society. If he survives.
And woe unto him who has the temerity or the bad judgment to express dissatisfaction to a foreigner. Now, under newly revised laws, a Soviet citizen may face criminal charges for merely talking to a foreigner without official authorization.
In the context of their own behavior, it is difficult to understand what the ''unbearable conditions'' were that the Soviet government felt itself called upon to protest through its boycott. Oh yes, there was the ever-present danger that their athletes might be seduced by ''unscrupulous emigre organizations,'' which were reputedly intending to break the rules by brandishing the idea of freedom in front of tender minds.
The Soviet government accused the US government of not preparing adequate security for its athletes, who were in danger of death - or so the story went in Tass - if they went to Los Angeles. The fact is, what the Soviets mean by security transcends our idea of security. While we acknowledge a responsibility to protect the athletes from criminal assault, we do not - in our free country - acknowledge a responsibility to keep them immune from varying opinions, different ideals, and peaceful demonstrations of opposition.
Los Angeles is a sprawling city, and the various Olympic sites are widely dispersed. That would make control of their athletes very difficult for the Soviet officials - presenting a ''security'' problem. Meaning not only that you must keep the external influence out - you must also keep the athletes in. It's something like a portable ''gulag.'' It's the same kind of thinking that led to the Berlin Wall. Churchill aptly dubbed the Soviet bloc ''security'' system the Iron Curtain. Check the barbed wire, the machine guns, and the vicious guard dogs along the border between East and West. The West didn't put them there.
The Olympic boycott and the inhumane treatment of citizens by the Soviet regime spring from the same totalitarian ideology. The current focus on the boycott may temporarily obscure the wretched situation of the Sakharovs and hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens, but when the clamor has abated, the ''unbearable conditions'' will remain. And they're not in Los Angeles.