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IN ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were a sacred rite, quite distinct from any other facet of the classical existence. They were the supreme test of the individual, and in his triumphs a source of great pride to the chauvinistic city-states. During wartime the Greeks would halt hostilities to observe the Olympiad--a tribute to the gods. In a very important way, the Games and athletics in general stood above the political sphere.
In the twentieth century, sadly, there is very little which is apart from politics. In the past two weeks, 38 nations--predominately from black Africa--have made viable threats to boycott the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City. Angered over apartheid South Africa's readmission to competition, the African nations have taken their political protest into the world of athletics.
Early last week, the Soviet Union, obviously seeking to bolster its image on the Dark Continent, stridently denounced the International Olympic Committee and more specifically its president, multi-millionaire Avery Brundage. Letting South Africa participate, the Soviet's Olympic Committee said, would be "an impermissible act which contradicts the basic principles of the Olympic statute."
Under this pressure--not to mention the insistent wails of worried host Mexico, which has put millions of dollars into preparations--Brundage agreed last week to call a special meeting of the IOC to discuss the issue. It was a rare compromise on the part of this man who once said, "Sports transcend politics. It is an international phenomenon like science or music."
Brundage got into the current mess initially about a month ago. During the Winter Games at Grenoble, he announced that a majority of the 72 member nations of the IOC had voted by mail to readmit South Africa, which was barred, because of apartheid, from the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad. Brundage said the Johannesburg government had taken adequate steps to merit the IOC's forgiveness.
The South Africans have agreed to enter an integrated team which will live as a unit in Mexico City. But while selections for the team will be made by an eight-man (half white, half black) committee, the Olympic trials themselves will be segregated. Ostensibly, the committee will then compare performances and choose the squad.
These moves satisfied enough members of the IOC (Brundage: "It was a real achievement."), but the African nations merely snorted. Correctly pointing to South Africa's unchanged discriminatory policies toward the rest of her non-white community, black Africa decried the Johannesburg concessions as virtually worthless. At a continental conference 32 of the fledgling states passed a boycott resolution which was soon endorsed by India, Malaysia, Cuba, Pakistan and several Middle Eastern nations. Russia and her satellites made threatening noises but refrained from joining the boycotters.
Donald Stevens, vice president of the Olympic Council of Malaysia, explained the feelings behind the resolution--the Olympics are so completely dominated by white nations, he said, that the IOC felt it could ignore the wishes of African and Asian nations by readmitting South Africa to the Games.
Although sometimes abrasive, the 80-year-old Brundage has managed to protect his Olympics from international political intrigue for nearly 15 years. He was instrumental in persuading the two Germanys to field a united Olympic team, thereby avoiding onerous comparisons. His machinations in the current crisis are crucial to the Games' future. As a Sports Illustrated writer wrote last week, "The South African affair could be an even greater triumph (than the uniting of Germany athletically). Or it could destroy the Olympics, since it involves the most malignant of man's emotions: his hatred for those that are different."
CURRENT speculation is that Brundage will attempt to postpone a final decision for as long as possible, despite daily Mexican and Communist demands for an immediate IOC decision. Brundage hopes the blustering will die away in time for the Olympics, but Frank Braun, president of the South African Committee, has said South Africa "will under no circumstances withdraw from the Games." And the protesting Africans regard this as an important demonstration of their immature political muscle.
As so often happens, the key to a compromise may lie with the Soviets, whose position is not yet totally clear. Moscow has a few choices. By joining the boycott, the Kremlin would improve relations with black Africa, gaining ground on Communist China, which can't compete anyway. On the other hand, Moscow could use its influence to torpedo the boycott, hoping to gain more from the prestige of Olympic victories than from the benefits of the boycott. As a third possibility, and not completely out of character, the Soviets could strike a compromise by continuing their denunciation of the South Africans, the IOC, and Brundage but competing in the Games. In the end the Soviet leaders must decide whom to alienate and whom to please, where to score points and where to lose them.
The Soviet dilemma resembles the plight of the American blacks who are contemplating a boycott of the U.S. Olympic team. Both groups of protestors must choose between the uncertain rewards of a controversial political move and the proven inspiration of substantial Olympic success. But the boycott against South Africa's presence has an obvious and specific goal--to bar the country from the Olympics. This gives it a greater justification than the black American protest, which has no motive other than a vague desire to arouse white America's attention to the misery of the ghetto.
Evidently Brundage hopes the furor over South Africa will grow quiet in the two months he expects to pass before the IOC's executive board discusses the issue. Then, if the controversy still exists, there would be another period of months before the 72 nations could assemble. Brundage may well feel that by then, just before entries close in August, the excitement generated by Olympic trials throughout the world will chill the dispute. At any rate, he intends to procrastinate.
There are those who would urge the United States to join the boycott. This should not be. For the United States must make every effort to protect the Olympics from further political encroachments. If this country in the past has prided itself on a unique approach to athletics--one which honored the amateur, the clean-living truly-competitive Bill Bradley--then this is a crucial time to reaffirm these concepts. There must not be a policy which will deprive America's youth of the opportunity to test themselves against the world's best.
But America's leaders do not always make the right decisions. Or make them for the right reasons. If the U.S. Olympic Committee should abandon classical approach to the separation of track and state and search for other considerations on which to make a decision, then the following problems should be explored.
FIRST, will the boycott, if it succeeds in ousting South Africa, have any effect on that country's apartheid policies? Many observers feel Johannesburg would respond to exclusion with repressive, not reform- ing, measures, Brundage reportedly holds this view as do some of the South African blacks. One black sports official there said the proposed boycott "is a slap in the face to us." South Africa's oppressed majority regards any concessions from the government as valuable, no matter how small, and does not want to lose this one.
Second, the Olympic Committee must consider whether this country would appear ludicrous condemning South Africa's policies in light of the recently-published Riot Commission report: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white--separate and unequal . . . Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of American life; they now threaten the future of every American." There is a difference, of course; one nation enforces its discrimination and the other condemns it. Perhaps the United States could acknowledge its shame while blasting the South Africans. But, of course, it should not come to this, because the Olympics are not the place for political pontifications.
This must be the decisive issue. In recent years world-wide attention has focused on the unofficial East-West struggle for Olympic metal. It is right that a nation should glory in its individual citizens' athletic achievements. But it is wrong that the nations should use the athletes themselves as tools in the continuing ideological combat. The Games should be, as they were for the Greeks, a period of respite from the depression and the terror of strife. The Olympics must be preserved as a major testing ground for international harmony, not as a minor battleground in international conflict
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