As far as the average fan is concerned, Olympic competitors are seldom seen and rarely heard. They look good on color TV and in photography books, as do racehorses. With few exceptions they tend to be names without personalities, their activities obscured by other sports events between Olympiads.
"We're mystery people," says Micki King, gold medal winner in three-meter springboard diving in Munich. "We have our place in the sun once every four years and then we disappear. We're forgotten. Nobody wants to hear from us or about us. People understand Joe Namath, but they just don't understand us—and so they ignore us."
But U.S. Olympians, a group traditionally as amorphous and silent as a cluster of amoebas, are beginning to make some noise. The change came about after the Munich Games, a catalytic horror show in the estimation of most athletes. "Even disregarding the terrorism, there was something very, very wrong," said Ed Williams, a biathlon competitor. To appease its grumbling athletes, in 1973 the staid United States Olympic Committee founded the Athletes' Advisory Council, an arm of the USOC to be run by athletes, one from each Olympic sport. The AAC began with many dreams and much uncertainty. "We're what the Olympics supposedly are all about," said Micki King, voted the first AAC head. "All we're asking is for a long-overdue voice."
When the AAC held its third meeting last month in a Denver hotel, the 26 representatives of the Winter and Summer Games appeared so businesslike in their suits and dresses that they could hardly be distinguished from a teachers' convention down the hall. "We could look more like a circus," admitted one athlete, "but our 7-foot basketball players, 4-foot gymnasts and 300-pound wrestlers aren't here."
Diversity came in the athletes' views of how successful their venture had been to date. Most felt a tentative, if limited, satisfaction. Advances had been made in ticket distribution and general "impact." But some were so angered by USOC rejections of their suggestions that they advocated disbanding the AAC to attract public attention and to force the Olympic Committee's hand. "The big guys gave us the AAC to quiet us," said Jim Melcher, a fencer. "But now they're afraid they've created a Frankenstein."
Certainly the athletes were being candid. Dianne Holum, a gold medal speed skater at 1,500 meters, seemed deeply relieved to be free of the say-nothing attitude forced upon her, and most Olympic-class athletes, from an early age. "You're always taught to compete and accept things as they are," she said. "I never complained; I accepted. I was always afraid to go to the officials about anything. And now that I'm a coach I see that my kids are acting the same way. I want to change that."
As the Denver meeting progressed, a good deal of rancor was touched off, most of it directed at the USOC. Coming in for repeated attack was the very size of the Olympic Committee, a conglomerate with input from organizations as diverse as the AAU, the National Rifle Association, the Catholic Youth Organization and the Boy Scouts. "Do you realize that of the $11 million generated for each Olympics, less than 50% makes it past the administration?" said Williams. "We're a charitable organization, a tax write-off. We should be as efficient as the March of Dimes."
A proposed constitutional article drawn up by the USOC and entitled "Athletes' Bill of Rights" was one issue provoking special hostility. It was attacked for not having implemented any of the athletes' suggestions and for reaffirming their positions as pawns of any educational institution they attend. "This is a farce," said one member. "The USOC is saying it won't go to bat for anyone once a school makes a ruling about the student's eligibility for the Olympics or Pan-American Games. It's not a Bill of Rights, and it's not for athletes."
At this point, Miguel de Capriles, a silver-haired lawyer with the demeanor of a favorite grandfather, stepped in. As the representative of the USOC, he urged the athletes to take it easy. "In a structured society athletes must live within the system," he said. "No one is totally free."
"Free?" spluttered one athlete. "Who's talking about freedom? We're talking about being protected."