THE OLYMPICS SEEM to be doomed. The Soviet Union's recent decision not to send its athletes to the Summer Games in Los Angeles reflects more than just the recent decline in Soviet-American relations, more than just a tit-for-tat response to the United States for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. The Russian pull-out reflects a now more clearly evident truth--that in their present form, the Games do not divorce politics from athletics, in fact, they do quite the opposite. They give world leaders an otherwise non-existent platform to call attention to themselves with the rest of the world for an audience.
The Olympics do not just provide the amateur athletes of the world the opportunity to bask briefly in the world's attention as they play out their innocent games. By contrast, they give the very nationalism the games are designed to transcend a perfect platform to emphasize the disunity of the world order. What has happened to the 1984 Games happened to the 1980 games. And, if we remember a little further back, we recall that in 1976, 37 Black African nations did not send athletes to Montreal because the International Olympic Committee extended an invitation to New Zealand, which had allowed its rugby team to tour South Africa. In 1972 in Munich, 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists. In 1968 America was shocked to see the Games, or rather the awards platform, used by U.S. runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who stretched their black-leather-gloved hands skyward in a Black Power salute, to call attention to the racial discrimination in this country.
In fact, you have to go back 16 years to find an Olympics that was not marred by some political gesture. And even if the Los Angeles Games had somehow gotten off the ground, the usual amateur professional controversy would have begun as soon as the Soviets or one of their allies triumphed in an event. You see, Americans would say they win easily because all their athletes are professionals and all American performers are amateurs and therefore compete with an inherent disadvantage. All victories by the Russians are understandable because the state recruits them when they're children and ruthlessly trains them in competition during their whole lives. This skewed view is promulgated by many, and it sheds light on just how nationalistic we all become when the Olympics roll around. We do not stop to consider how U.S. athletes like Carl Lewis, who earns over $100,000 and retains his ameteur status, and was recently named one of the ten best dressed men in America, take advantage of our system and reap rewards that the Soviets cannot begin to offer their athletes. On the other hand, the International Football Federation is struggling to find western soccer teams that can compete with the Eastern countries on the amateur level, because the Soviets and their allies regularly clean up against nations with professional sports at the Olympic level.
The many crises of the Games seem to be irresolvable. U.S. Olympic long-distance running Coach Billy Squier suggested after the Soviet boycott was announced that many of the world's athletes consider the annual World Championships more important than the Olympics anyway, because the participants are assured of the best competition and because athletics, not politics, are the focus. Only at the Olympics are the athletes thought of first as representatives of their nations and not as individuals. Michael Jordan becomes the United States' Michael Jordan Sebastian Coe becomes Britain's Sebastian Coe. And, in the same way all the great Soviet performers become to many Americans, simply the enemy.
IF THE OLYMPICS ARE to survive, we must depoliticize them. But games which the Soviets refuse to participate in, games which up until the 1970s were ignored by the world's largest country, games which were used to showcase the new fascist state in Germany in 1936, games that are plagued with amateur versus professional controversies, games that are increasingly becoming the unfortunate tool of both terrorists and irresponsible world leaders, games that are historically and hopelessly wedded to world politics are games that cannot be depoliticized.
The inescapable conclusion is that the Olympics themselves are the problem. The world championships in all the different sports, held in non Olympic years do not suffer from all these maladies they proceed smoothly and non-politically to determine which athletes are the world's finest. The Olympics, which were admirably designed to allow athletes to transcend the petty problems of nationalism, have now irrevocably and unfortunately become the victim of the system that they were designed to rise above.
Let us abandon the Olympics, much as the ancient Greeks did a thousand years ago, realizing their great concept was just no longer practicable. Let us return the athletics to the athletes; let us send the politicians back to their politicking and, most of all, let us try to address some of the problems that created the crisis of the Olympics in the first place.