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In the weeks before last Saturday's Oregon Indoor Track & Field Meet in Portland, the first U.S. event in which Soviet athletes were to participate since President Carter first threatened an Olympic boycott on Jan. 4, the Northwest hosted numbers of experienced and perceptive Olympians, all of them struggling to sort out the welter of hopes and goals and ideals that bear on the issue. In the difficult, often painful evolution of their thought could be seen the same rigor and honesty that carried them to their victories, their records. At the end of this melancholy passage, however, few of them see anything but a lasting division.
The first, visceral reaction of most Olympians to Carter's proposal of a boycott of the Moscow Games was to defend the ideal of pure sport, to reassert that sports and politics don't mix. Minutes after the President's Jan. 4 speech, Edwin Moses, the Olympic champion and world-record holder in the 400-meter hurdles, an engineer and careful thinker, had exploded. "Just what right does Carter have to keep us from going, anyway?" he said. "Those are our Games. The athletes' games." Moses went on to say that he would consider filing suit to prevent the President from imposing a ban on athletes' travel.
Another version of this instinctively protective argument was voiced by many, including marathoner Bill Rodgers, who pointed out that U.S. amateur athletes seem to live in the worst of two worlds. Unlike professionals or the "amateurs" of many other nations, American Olympians get scant financial support in their years of training, but, also unlike pros, they are called upon to be instruments of foreign policy. "Usually we are agents of international goodwill and understanding," said Jane Frederick of Santa Barbara, Calif., who is the American-record holder in the pentathlon, has been to two Olympics and would be a contender for a gold in a third. "But the other possibility is there as well," she said. "For a greater good, we may need to sever such exchanges, and whichever way it goes this time, I must accept the inescapable conclusion: I am a pawn."
For most athletes, the broader implications of the boycott were slow to sink in. Sue Latter, the 1977 AAU 800-meter champion who had moved from Michigan to Eugene, Ore. to train for the Olympic Trials to be held there in June, said, "The chance of our not sending a team seemed impossible at first. The U.S. just has no history of using the Games like that. And when it looked like this was the time, I'm afraid my first thoughts were for myself."
Few could say otherwise. "I was overwhelmed by my personal involvement," said 18-foot-pole vaulter Jeff Taylor of the Maccabi TC of Los Angeles. "But then I started to read." Taylor, like a lot of others, got a massive political education in three weeks. "The complexity of the thing came in a flood," he said. "I came to see how the Olympics and politics have been connected since the beginning, that it is blind to pretend the Games exist in a vacuum. Now I am amazed at myself. The Olympics have been my goal for nine years, yet I'm saying we shouldn't go."
Athletes who had competed recently in the U.S.S.R. understood the depth of the Soviet leaders' hope that the Olympics would somehow usher their country into full acceptance among nations. Henry Marsh, a law student at Oregon and a 1976 Olympian who won the Spartakiade Games steeplechase in Moscow in July, at first put himself squarely behind the President, despite his rushing memories. "It gave me chills to hear the national anthem played for me in Lenin Stadium," he said, "but my first response to the boycott was simply patriotic, that we had to get out of the Games. I knew that it would hurt them. Then I wavered. I didn't know if a boycott would accomplish its intent, or how seriously it would damage the Olympic movement.
"I changed my mind every hour," said Marsh, who is a recently elected member of the USOC executive board. By the time of the board's deliberations last week, he was a firm advocate of moving the Games from Moscow and of not sending a team if the Olympics were held there.
With each side seeking to understand the other, hoping to fasten on something that would make a clear conviction possible, many athletes were irresistibly drawn to thoughts of an alternative Olympics, Games that not only would provide a substitute for Moscow, but also would bring long-needed reform. Jon Anderson, a 1972 Olympian at 10,000 meters and the 1973 Boston Marathon champion who is now coming back strongly after two Achilles' tendon operations, expressed the view that the athletes have never given unqualified approval to the Olympics as run by the IOC, but have merely accepted them as the only Games going. In between the 16 hard 330-yard intervals he ran one day last week, Anderson spoke of the IOC contention that it takes years to plan an Olympic Games, that it is Moscow or nowhere in 1980. "That's just hogwash," he said. "Maybe it takes six years to do all the irrelevant urban renewal that Munich and Montreal did, but the athletes don't care about that. All we need is a place to sleep, to train, to eat and to compete under fair officials. Why doesn't the IOC read this as a time to change?"
This became a compelling vision, shimmering in and out of focus in many imaginations. An Olympics stripped of its nationalism where athletes would be chosen on a basis of performance. An Olympics held in several venues scattered around a small country. An Olympics in which amateur codes would finally be dropped, and with them hypocrisy. An Olympics in which women would be permitted to run farther than 1,500 meters.
"The only question is how practical is all that," said Taylor. "Where would the backing come from? Why would any government want to get involved?" The answer, this year, is simple: to keep the Olympics from Moscow. With Carter's Administration rumored willing to spend whatever it takes to support a relocated Games, it seemed a giddy, but just possible, hope that an alternative Olympics might result.