Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski's pointer struck the map beside him with some force as he reviewed the Carter Administration's interpretation of the military and political situation in Afghanistan, Iran and the southwestern regions of the Soviet Union. However, last Friday the national security affairs adviser's rapt audience in the East Room of the White House was not government officials but 150 past and prospective Olympic athletes and coaches gathered to hear why the Administration was convinced that the U.S. must not participate in the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow.
Brzezinski spoke for 30 minutes. He noted that the 12-week-old U.S.S.R. takeover has made Afghanistan a "strategic wedge," effectively doubling the Soviets' border with Iran and potentially placing Soviet tactical aircraft within range of the narrow Strait of Hormuz, through which passes "an enormous percentage of the West's oil." He said 105,000 Soviet troops are currently occupying Afghanistan. He cited evidence that suggested the possible Soviet use of toxic weaponry, of attempts to seal the borders and of construction of permanent bases, saying, "They are creating no impression that the invasion will be reversed. We might as well face that fact."
In the audience, Jane Frederick's eyes were wide. The American record holder in the pentathlon was thinking, "Yesterday I was on a sunny track in Santa Barbara. Today I'm being exposed to the iron realities of the world."
Brzezinski went on to say that the invasion was seen by the Administration as part of a larger pattern of Soviet disregard for restraint in foreign policy. For that reason, he said, the Administration decided it had to respond more strongly than with just diplomatic protests. "That would be a historically irresponsible underreaction," he said. "We must convey to the Soviets that unilateral action will bring counteraction." The grain embargo and the restrictions on providing computer and oil-drilling technology to the U.S.S.R. were part of that response, as was strengthening the U.S. military presence in the region. And so was the decision to boycott the Games.
"To the U.S.S.R., sport is an extension of politics," said Brzezinski. "For years they have maintained that the selection of Moscow as the 1980 Olympic site is confirmation of the world's approval of Soviet foreign policy. We do not oppose the Olympics. It is the site we oppose. We have determined that we cannot permit business as usual in social, cultural, scientific or commercial activities. We can't say of sport that 'this is somehow immune.' It's not logical, not possible. Worse, it is symbolically wrong, morally wrong to hold this festival of peace in the capital of an aggressor nation posing a threat of such strategic significance."
Fred Newhouse, a gold and silver medalist in track at Montreal, rose and asked with appeal in his voice, "Can anything at all happen now that will let us go?"
The probability of such an event, said Brzezinski, was comparable to that of his aunt growing whiskers. "We certainly will reconsider if they depart, but that seems very, very unlikely."
After Brzezinski had finished, Deputy White House Counsel Joseph Onek sketched the Administration's plan for alternative world-class competition this year. Those games would be scheduled for late August or early September, a few weeks after Moscow, and would be open to all athletes, including the Soviets. Each of several sites, as yet undisclosed, would host clusters of sports, each organized by a present national or international sports authority, the whole tied together for the world by television. TV revenues, he claimed later, could run as high as $50 million, and thus support a large part of the endeavor.
Onek had fielded only a few questions when the White House press corps crowded noisily into the warm and humid room. The television lights blazed on and President Carter strode in. Later, watching the evening news, many athletes would be surprised to learn that their quiet as the President entered was almost unprecedented and was interpreted as a pointedly cool reception. In fact, the athletes had not clapped because he had appeared so swiftly and unexpectedly and because no one had told them that applause is customary.
Carter began with a few quiet words of sadness over the death of 22 members and officials of a U.S. boxing team in Poland a week earlier, saying, "When we are confronted with stark tragedies, we are moved to inventory what is most important in human life. I've invited you with some trepidation to discuss a matter of thousands of human lives in Afghanistan, and the danger of many more being lost if we are unwilling to sacrifice to protect the security of the United States. I am determined to keep that national interest paramount—even if people I admire and love, like you, are forced to sacrifice."
Carter's blue eyes were icy as he said, "I cannot say what other nations will not go. Ours will not go."
He said his audience occupied a special place in American life, "not because of ability alone, but because Olympic athletes are a personification of the achievement of excellence in an environment of freedom, honoring of human rights, and peace. Of all the sacrifices Americans are being asked to make, yours is the deepest and most personal." Therefore he pledged himself to the success of alternative competitions and said he would create a special award for American Olympians in such games, "to commemorate how you helped to preserve freedom and enhance the principles of the Olympics and the nation."
Swimmer Bruce Furniss asked what the President would do if the U.S. Olympic Committe or athletes individually tried to go to the Moscow Olympics. Carter said he had the authority to stop travel, "but that would be a drastic step I wouldn't want to face. I'd prefer to stay equivocal on it just now."
At a reception following the meeting, Villanova miler Don Paige summarized the athletes' initial impression. "We ain't goin'," he said.
However, 97 athletes met later in the Hay-Adams Hotel where an informal poll showed 44 opposed to the boycott action, 29 in favor of it and 24 agonized abstentions.
The full range of sentiments was clearly expressed. Boxer Jimmy Clark said, "I think it's unpatriotic to even wait for the President to have to tell us not to go." Volleyball player Flo Hyman said, "We are ambassadors of peace. To destroy the Olympic movement—which a boycott may well do—isn't worth a gesture that the Russian people won't even be told about." Sailor Dick Tillman said, "It seems a choice between logic and emotion. Today we got the facts, and they leave little room for hope. But emotionally, Lord, it's hard to give it up."
The next morning, Onek accepted an invitation to speak to the 47 athletes who belong to the Athletes' Advisory Council of the U.S. Olympic Committee, the only athletes' association in which all Olympic sports are represented. He agreed to answer questions for one hour and stayed more than two. To those who said the threat of a boycott obviously was not moving the Soviets out of Afghanistan, Onek replied that the rationale was to send a message to influence subsequent Soviet decisions. "Most Soviet dissidents and èmigrès, including Andrei Sakharov, have said we should not go, as have most U.S. Kremlinologists."
Onek seemed perhaps excessively sanguine about the U.S. continuing to collect international support. "I think there is a good chance that none of the major Western European countries will go and that their nonparticipation, especially that of the French [who are said to have uncommon influence within the International Olympic Committee], might convince the IOC to cancel or postpone the Games." Such hopes seemed to be dimmed by the announcement from a meeting of European Olympic committees in Belgium a few hours later that eight national Olympic committees—including those of France, Italy and Great Britain—pledged to send their athletes to Moscow no matter what their governments wanted them to do.
In the end, it seemed Onek had won much respect but few additional converts. The Athletes' Advisory Council drafted a statement supporting the Administration's goals, but proposing that a team be entered that would refuse to take part in the opening, closing or medal ceremonies. The athletes sent the statement to Carter in hopes of further discussion. "It would be a double mission that the American people would be proud of and the Soviets couldn't possibly hide," said canoeist Andy Toro.
The White House didn't immediately respond, but Onek had already set out the reasons that such a plan, which had been considered by the Administration, had been discarded. "The IOC has rules that penalize the athletes for political displays," he said, "and what would be dramatic on U.S. television would never be shown on Russian. Finally, if the team goes, we surrender the possibility of so wide a boycott that the Games are stopped."
Thus remains the iron reality that President Jimmy Carter has no intention of changing his mind.
Onek proffered plans for alternative games.
Brzezinski assessed the situation in Afghanistan.