Publish date:

Oh, For The Days Of A County Fair

The members of the U.S. men's volleyball team were bruised, aching, soaked and singing. In Kharkov, the Ukraine, the U.S.S.R., they'd just beaten the Soviets for the first time in 16 years. The score was 3-2 in games (11-15, 15-5, 13-15, 16-14, 15-6). Not since 1968 had the U.S. team even qualified for the Olympic field; the Soviets were gold medalists in '68 and '80, silver medalists in '76 and bronze medalists in '72. Doug Beal, the U.S. coach, was being congratulated by his opposite number, Vyacheslav Platonov. "We have such great relations with the Russians in volleyball," Beal would say. "We're talking of competing on a home-and-home basis annually.... These teams were building a great sporting rivalry."

That was before the rivalry upstairs got out of hand. As the coaches embraced, Platonov broke the news. The Soviet Union wouldn't attend the Los Angeles Olympics. The Soviet coach had just learned of the decision as he headed to the U.S. locker room. "You could tell he'd had no forewarning," Beal said. Platonov has been the Soviet coach for seven years. The pinnacle of his career was to have been winning a gold medal at this summer's Games. Beal appealed to him for a reading of the situation. "It won't be reversed," he said, shaking his head. And so began a long, puzzling, vexing week of guessing whether this latest spear plunged into the side of the Olympic movement will be the one that proves fatal.

"We went from ecstasy to total disappointment in half an hour," said Beal. "To understand how we feel, you have to know what we've done. How we worked for years to bring the team to equality with the best in the world and what it cost every member. And then we were 10,000 miles away from home and numb."

As other Eastern Bloc nations withdrew, falling in like good soldiers despite what had to be boilingly mixed feelings—Had they not deemed Great Britain's Olympic committee heroic for standing up to Jimmy Carter, and their own government, by sending a team to Moscow?—the Olympic men's volleyball competition was vitiated. When all the cancellations are in, it's likely that four of the top six teams—the U.S.S.R., Cuba, Bulgaria and Poland—will be out.

Thus it was in sport after sport. Women's track and field in Los Angeles will decide nothing without the Eastern Europeans. Swimming without East Germany or the Soviet Union may produce records, but missing will be the conviction that a gold medal means, as it once meant, that its owner was on a single day the best in the world.

American athletes, of course, know how it feels. Mary Decker lost her 1976 Games to injury, her '80 Olympics to the U.S. boycott. With the possible exception of Zola Budd, Decker's only competition in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters are Soviet runners. They filled the three places behind her in the 1,500 at the 1983 World Championships, and the rematch was to be a Games centerpiece. So the announcement was tantamount to hanging a pair of gold medals around her neck. That had been a goal for so long that at first Decker resisted the tarnishing of it. "I'm not going to L.A. to beat the Russians," she said. "I'm going to win an Olympic gold medal. I can't take away their medals from Moscow. They were Olympic champions. And if I win, so will I be." But in her next, low words, she made clear what is vastly more important to her—racing the best. "I'm sure they'll turn up in Europe. Do you think they'll run in Zurich [on Aug. 22]?"

Others found the shock harder to face. Many clung to the hope that since there is time for the Soviets to reconsider and for the U.S. to address the Soviets' stated concerns about security and the integrity of the IOC charter, an accommodation will be reached. "We have to admit we were wrong last time," said Doris Brown Heritage, an assistant women's Olympic track coach. "We haven't gone the last mile, as [White House Deputy Press Secretary] Larry Speakes claimed we have. There's still time. Where is the will? Where is the sense of all we're losing?"

"The Soviets live for this," said swimmer Jill Sterkel, who will be trying to make her third Olympic team. "I thought it would be too hard for them to throw away all they trained for."

Of course, the ones who've done the throwing away aren't the ones who've done the training. That's the galling irony that both sides now have to endure. "The Soviets aren't learning from our mistakes," said shotputter Ramona Pagel of San Diego State.

"Their politicians have shown that they know even less about the meaning of sport than ours do," said track writer Jim Dunaway. "And that's really saying something."

That the Soviet pullout was President Carter's legacy was often heard. "The Americans have sown the seed and reaped the whirlwind," said Olympic 1,500 champion Sebastian Coe of Britain. "But the 1980 boycott was far less devastating than this one could be."

Each division, each generation of athletes denied truly Olympic expression, brings us further from the ideal that gives the Olympic flame its moral heat and light. And viewed that way, the 1980 boycott can seem just a milepost on a melancholy, declining road.

The terror of 1972 was brought about by men who were incapable of understanding the values the Games symbolized—most pointedly, the Olympic truce of the ancient Greeks, who suspended their wars and guaranteed safe passage to allow the broadest participation—men who craved only the attention they drew. The 1976 boycott by black African nations over New Zealand's rugby ties with South Africa advanced the ruinous precedent: Nations were using the Games to pressure other nations. Then Carter acted as he felt he must in '80. He sent Vice-President Walter Mondale to the USOC House of Delegates to win a vote to boycott. There, Mondale said of the U.S. determination to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan, "History holds its breath, for what is at stake is no less than the future security of the civilized world."

As far as most Olympians are concerned, the only civilized players in this tragedy are the athletes. They are the ones brave enough to have worked for years to make it to Los Angeles, even with the knowledge that they could be violated once again. "I shouldn't be surprised, but I am," said discus thrower Al Oerter, 47, whose four gold medals from 1956 through 1968 are sport's finest example of sustained excellence. Oerter has seen what has been lost. "I was competing when the Olympics were relative county fairs," he says. "They were really enjoyable.'s not the Olympics anymore. ABC will call it the Olympics, but it's not. How can it be in the discus if three of the top five aren't there?"

The news, for Oerter, "was like letting air out of a balloon." He had been training with fiery purpose to make his fifth team. ("These are the Olympics. You die for them," he had said after winning in Mexico City in 1968.) Now he thought only of another kind of competition: "Just to go to a place where you can throw and afterward sit outside and eat corn on the cob and drink beer with your friends." Like a county fair.

Unlike 1980, when debate raged over what was right, the athletes' talk was subdued. There was nothing left to decide, only to accept. "I used to be in love with the Olympics," said long jumper Arnie Robinson. "No more. The idea is good, but the Olympic movement has become a farce."

"When I watch The Olympiad series on TV and see the way the Olympics have been, I get so excited I have to go take a run," said marathon world-record holder Alberto Salazar. "But when I think of how Montreal and Moscow were affected by boycotts, and now this, I don't really care as much anymore. God, it must have been fun to be in them in 1972." That last sentence comes as a jolt to one whose store of memories from Munich is largely painful.

"My heart goes out to those athletes in sports with no world championships besides the Olympics," Salazar continued. "Me? I'll get to run the marathon against the top athletes sooner or later, anyway."

That somehow seems to bode the worst for the Games, that a world-record holder, a contender for gold, finds them replaceable.

And he's not alone. Jeff Buckingham, the American record holder in the pole vault, thinks that now the premier event in track and field will be the world championships, inaugurated last year in Helsinki and scheduled to be held every four years, in the year before the Olympics. "I think that's what most athletes will be gearing up for," Buckingham said.

"It ruins everything, especially for me in my event," said Benita Fitzgerald Brown, a hurdler. "I finished eighth in the world championships last summer, and that will mean more to me even if I win a gold medal, because I know I wouldn't have competed against all the best athletes."

"I'm not disillusioned to the point that I won't do my best," said basketball player Lynette Woodard, formerly of the University of Kansas and a member of the 1980 and '84 teams. "But this uncertainty makes it less likely that players coming out of college in non-Olympic years will make it their chief aim to get on the team. A lot of us spent three years keeping up our game. That may become a thing of the past."

"The old Olympians," said Heritage, who was fifth in the 800 in 1968 and tore a tendon and broke bones in her foot while warming up for the '72 1,500, "are the ones who seem most deeply affected by this. I loved the feeling of stepping outside the bounds of nationality for a while. Art does that, and music and science. But only sport can do it so visibly, so powerfully. I felt that. I've been changed by it. I guess you don't know what you've got till it's gone."

Competitor after competitor affirmed the value—and the ability—of sport to transcend politics. "At the level of the athlete—and if I'm not mistaken, this is what it's all about—we respect each other, and I hurt for the Soviets," said gymnast Bart Conner. "We go to competitions and there might be a lot of [KGB] guys around to keep an eye on them, but when you get into a room with a bottle of vodka, it's just athlete to athlete."

"I was taught not to like Russians," said swimmer Steve Lundquist. "That they were the bad guys. But I've liked every one of them I've ever met at swimming meets. I always thought the Olympics were a worldwide forum for meeting, understanding and just having a good time together."

Those views won't change. These friendships won't end. There have always been two Olympics. One is the concern of the organizers, the politicians, the sellers, the television people, the crowds nursing all their vicarious passions. The other is simpler. It's an athlete in the arena, facing the best in the world. It's the chance to test yourself in that crushing, ultimate pressure, to see if you can take it and still summon your best. That crucible is what creates the bonds, what transcends ideologies. And so only the commercial, immense, proud, staggering IOC Olympics are in jeopardy. The athletes, through world championships, or maybe through just calling each other up and naming a place and a time, can find ways to bring themselves together. They'll be less likely to put their faith in the IOC to do it any longer.


Minus the Soviet challenge, which she withstood in Helsinki, Decker is a golden girl.


Oerter, here at 1980 trials, still seeks simpler Games.


Sterkel won't be hearing the East German anthem.


Lundquist has found friends among foes.