Soviet boycott both diminishes L.A. Games and spotlights recurring Olympic problems
As the 1984 Olympic Games approach their opening ceremony Saturday in Los Angeles, there are two basic facts to keep in mind. First, an Olympics minus two of the world's three great athletic powers can't possibly achieve the usual level of drama and excitement.
Second, nearly everyone connected with the Los Angeles Games wants to downplay this fact - just as the Russians did in 1980.
In both cases, the party line seems to read, ''If they don't want to come, that's their problem.''
Unfortunately, there's more to it than that. The US-led boycott four years ago clearly diminished the Moscow Games for all concerned. The absence of the USSR, East Germany, and most of their friends can't help but do the same this time.
Recalling the six Olympics I have covered, the most vivid images almost all involve Soviet bloc athletes - gymnasts Olga Korbut, Nellie Kim, and Nadia Comaneci; Valery Borzov breaking US domination of the sprints; Tatania Kazankina in the women's middle distance races; Waldemar Cierpinski beating Frank Shorter in the marathon; Vasily Alekseev doing his spectacular weightlifting thing; Irena Szewinska winning sprint medals in an unprecedented four straight Olympics; Cuban stars Alberto Juantorena on the track and Teofilo Stevenson in the boxing ring; and of course all those East German women in various events.
Even when Americans won, it was frequently the presence of Eastern bloc competitors that raised their triumphs to dramatic highs - as when Bruce Jenner won the decathlon title in 1976 by breaking the 1-2-3 communist domination of the previous Games. And of course the most memorable scenes of all have been those involving direct East-West team confrontations: the controversial Soviet basketball victory in Munich, the emotional moment at Montreal when the US women's relay swimming team defeated the East Germans, and the almost incredible US hockey triumph at Lake Placid.
No one doubts that the show at Los Angeles will still be a spectacular one - flags waving, anthems playing, and thousands of the world's top athletes competing for those medals. There will even still be some communist entries, including Romania with an array of potential successors to the retired Comaneci. So these Games are sure to have their own share of close contests and world records - enough to excite both the live audiences and TV viewers around the world.
But it won't really be the same. And that brings us to the larger questions of what the Olympics are supposed to be, what they have evolved into, and where they are headed from here.
Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, had a sense of what they are supposed to be. ''The important thing in the Olympics,'' he said, ''is not to win but to participate, just as the important thing in life is not the conquest but the struggle.'' These days, however, the attention seems more often focused on medal counts, the increasing professionalism of the athletes, the sophisiticated training programs, the use of drugs, the occasional disqualifications for various forms of cheating, and the constant exhortations to ''win the Olympics.''
Another basic Olympic ideal is that the athletes, although representing their countries, are still competing as individuals. It hasn't worked out that way. A recent nationwide poll in the United States reveals that a majority of those surveyed view the Games as a contest among nations rather than one among individuals.
But how does one change that perception? Some advocate doing away with the flags, anthems, and other national trappings that promote chauvinism. This might indeed concentrate more attention on the athletics and reduce the nationalism a bit. But it would also take away many of the things that make these competitions unique. Why? Because the aspects that lift the Olympics to their special place in the public eye are the very same ones that have gradually contaminated their ideals.
Clearly it's pretty hard to find a solution to that dilemma. Considering the fuss made over Olympic champions, it is hardly surprising that individual athletes and the nations they represent place too much emphasis on gold medals. But can one competition on one day in a four-year cycle really tell us which person is the best in a particular event? The true test, as most athletes and coaches readily agree, must come over a period of time. Yet the whole idea of ''going for the gold'' has been so hyped by the media, and so supported by the public, that even the athletes get caught up in it - with the result that an Olympic medal can take on an importance out of all proportion to its real athletic significance.
Despite these flaws, however, the Olympics do provide a chance every four years for the youth of the world to gather in a setting that lends itself to promoting international goodwill, friendship, and understanding - or so the propaganda goes. Again, though, the reality is a bit removed from the ideal.
Those who see these things through rose-colored glasses would have us believe that the Olympic Village is one vast meeting place where athletes from many nations get to know each other better, and thus become more aware of other cultures, ways of thinking, etc. Of course there is some such contact (who can forget the 1960 courtship and eventual marriage of US hammer throwing gold medalist Harold Connolly and Czech discus winner Olga Fikotova?), but the reality is that constraints of time, different interests, and language barriers tend to keep fraternization among athletes of different nationalities to a minimum. I've walked through a lot of Olympic Villages, and what I have usually seen is athletes working out, relaxing, eating, etc. almost exclusively with their own national teammates - usually, in fact, only with those involved in their own particular sports. And those with whom I have discussed the situation bear out that impression.
''Inconsequential,'' was the way 1960 US basketball star Jerry Lucas described it, and his teamate Jerry West added: ''It's a tremendous exaggeration , really. You're sequestered and you can't speak the language.''
But perhaps Oscar Robertson, another member of that team that won the gold medal in Rome, explained it best. ''I guess they like to think it because in places like the dining hall there's a bunch of Americans sitting here, and a bunch of Czechs over there, and a bunch of Russians in another area,'' he said, ''but in reality there's very little contact.''
So another myth goes by the boards. But what isn't any myth, of course, is the enormous problem of logistics and security that any modern Olympics automatically poses. And another actuality is the increasing disruption of the Games for political reasons.
Political intrusions of one sort or another are nothing new in the Olympics, of course. As long ago as 1936 the Berlin Games were blatantly politicized by Adolph Hitler as a means of showing the world his ''new Germany.'' In the 1950s and '60s there were major political battles leading to the eventual exclusion of South Africa, and boycotts by various countries over issues such as the Suez Canal and the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The 1968 Games in Mexico City are still remembered for the ''Black Power'' salutes by some US athletes on the podium. In 1972 there was the tragic massacre of Israeli athletes at Munich. And the 1976 Montreal Games were marred by a walkout of Taiwan in one political dispute and of a number of black nations in another.
The boycott aspect of these political disruptions took on a new dimension in 1980, though, when the United States and some of its friends stayed away from Moscow, and has continued this year with the Soviet-led absence from Los Angeles. And this question of ''Superpower ping-pong'' with the Olympics does indeed raise the question of whether the Games as we know them can survive.
Twice in a row, now, the athletes of all countries - and especially those of the US, the USSR, and East Germany - have been the losers in terms of not being able to compete in a true Olympic competition involving the best sportsmen and sportswomen from all nations. And at least some of them must be wondering by now if all the training and sacrifices are worth it when one government action - on any pretext - can so quickly ruin everything.
So we have excessive nationalism, overemphasis on winning, professionalism, drugs, cheating, massive problems of logistics and security, and the increasingly disruptive intrusion of politics - all for an event in which both the importance of the competition athletically and the degree of its benefits in a social sense are vastly exaggerated.
Taken in this light, it is tempting indeed to advocate just scrapping the whole thing. All of these sports have their world championships anyway in non-Olympic years, so in a sense the whole thing is really just a big circus - a spectacle for TV which has grown, Topsy-like, far out of proportion to any real worth it may have.
But that's the problem. We're talking at this point in the billions of dollars when we add up TV rights, advertising and promotional revenue, corporate sponsorship, gate receipts, contracts for food, transportation, housing, etc. - and when there are this many people and companies involved in an operation with that kind of money being tossed around, the one certainty is that they aren't going to rock any boats. The Games are with us to stay, all right - of that we can be sure - so all we can do is try to solve or minimize those problems that can be dealt with and to live with those that can't.