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Original Issue

A Decline In The Gold Standard

If you don't think boycotts ruin Olympic competitions, then you haven't heard about the 1980 Zimbabwe women's field hockey team. When the Carter boycott siphoned off five of the six teams scheduled to compete in Moscow, four of the vacant slots were filled by Czechoslovakia, India, Australia and Poland—all of which had earlier been eliminated in qualifying rounds. Desperate to avoid the embarrassment of an incomplete field, the Soviets offered to subsidize a trip to the Games for any team Zimbabwe, which hadn't become eligible for the Olympics until after the field hockey qualifying, could produce. That pickup squad, chosen a few weeks before the opening ceremonies, won the gold medal. At halftime of the final, Zimbabwe's minister of sport rushed on the field and promised that if the team won, each player would get an ox. They, in fact, never got their oxen, but they nonetheless provided us with a new concept in awards: The Order of the Zimbabwean Ox.

The Soviet-led boycott will so deplete a number of competitions in L.A. that The Order could well be bestowed many times over this summer. Take weightlifting. That sport's 10 world records in the total are held by six Soviets, three Bulgarians and one East German, none of whom will be in L.A. The Eastern bloc similarly dominates canoeing, rowing and modern pentathlon. Of the powers in men's and women's team handball, only Yugoslavia remains.

The boycott will damage other sports but slightly. No one will notice the Soviet absence in equestrian events or in women's volleyball, although without the U.S.S.R., Poland and Cuba on hand, the Japanese men's volleyball team will have only the U.S. to contend with. East Germany and the U.S.S.R. have been catching up to the powers that be in archery, yachting, shooting (in which they win the pistol events) and judo, but while those competitions will be diminished, the U.S. remains dominant in the first three and Japan in the last.

The boycott will wreak havoc upon some sports that figured to be truly competitive. Before 1980 the U.S.S.R. was the only nation to crack the U.S. men's basketball monopoly, winning in 1972, and the Soviet women won in 1976 and '80. The men's tournament won't be spoiled by the boycott, because Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia, the '80 champion, are as good as the Soviets, but without the U.S.S.R., Cuba and Bulgaria, the U.S. women should easily win the gold.

"The Soviets don't have any current world champs in boxing, so the quality of the competition won't be ruined," says Leslie King of the U.S. Boxing Federation. Ask her about Cuba, though, and she gets nervous. Last year five world champions were from the U.S., five from Cuba and two from Canada. The U.S.S.R.'s Serik Konakbayev could have given Mark Breland of the U.S. a good scrap at 147 pounds, however. American super heavyweight world champion Tyrell Biggs will still have his hands full with Italy's Francesco Damiani, but it would have been fun to see old Teofilo Stevenson fight for his fourth straight gold medal. If, as expected, Cuba pulls out of the L.A. Games, U.S. boxers will beat up the world.

In fencing, Carla Mae Richards, executive director of the U.S. association, admits, "We're a very dark horse. Italy's women are quite strong, as strong as anybody. The Soviet and Bulgarian men are among the best; they regularly make the finals." In fact, at last summer's world championships, Soviet and Bulgarian men between them took home three of six gold medals.

The U.S.S.R. or other East European countries have won all the football—soccer—golds and 20 of 24 medals in that sport since 1952. Without Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and the U.S.S.R., football will lose its kick, but Yugoslavia should keep the Continent's medal string intact.

Women's gymnastics suffers gravely: At last year's world championships, the U.S.S.R.'s Natalia Yurtchenko won the overall title and Olga Mostepanova the balance beam, while a Bulgarian, Boriana Stoyanova, won the vault and an East German, Maxi Gnauck, the uneven parallel bars. In men's gymnastics, the biggest loss is Dmitri Belozertchev of the U.S.S.R., who won three golds and one silver in the world championships.

On Aug. 1 the sixth-seeded U.S. water polo team was scheduled to meet the top-seeded U.S.S.R. in the Olympic tournament's first round. "We were psyched," says Burt Shaw, chairman of the U.S. men's International/Olympic Water Polo Committee. "We could have upset them. They would like to play us less than any other team because we're pretty inconsistent. They wouldn't know what to expect." That inconsistency likely will keep the U.S. from winning a gold medal, which should now go to either West Germany, Holland or Yugoslavia.

Greco-Roman wrestling becomes a sham without the U.S.S.R. and Bulgaria, which have won more than half the event's gold medals in the last eight Games. The freestyle, says Greg Strobel of U.S.A. Wrestling, "figured to be a dual meet: the Russians and us. There would have been some medals going to other countries, but not many. This was going to be our big year." Since the Soviets first participated in Olympic freestyle wrestling in 1952, they've won six of eight team titles. At L.A., the U.S.S.R., led by the world's premier wrestler, 125½-pound Sergei Beloglazov, figured to win five of the 10 golds, the U.S. three to five. It looked to be such a great meet that the U.S. team refuses to believe it won't happen. "It's a crock," says 163-pound world champion Dave Shultz of Palo Alto, Calif. Will the U.S. coast if the boycott turns the Olympics into what Shultz calls "a glorified Pan Am Games"? Says coach Dan Gable, "I might as well send my mother out to coach."

Fans even get cheated in the demonstration sports. We won't get to see what Czechoslovakia's youth tennis machine is cranking out, and we won't be able to watch the legendary Cuban baseball players. Whoever beats the U.S. in these sports could well be admitted to The Order of the Zimbabwean Ox.

Again the U.S.S.R. might have repeated with the team that got the silver in '82 and included breaststroker Volkov.