When the announcement came, it was sudden, unexpected, devastating. Two and a half hours after the transcontinental Olympic torch relay got under way in New York City on the drizzly morning of May 8—the first of the festivities leading up to the opening ceremonies of the Los Angeles Olympics on July 28—the Soviet Union declared that it was pulling out of the Games. By week's end the U.S.S.R. had been joined in its boycott by Bulgaria, East Germany, Vietnam, Mongolia, Czechoslovakia, Laos, and Afghanistan; Hungary, Poland, Cuba and North Korea were expected to follow suit. And the 1984 Games were rapidly becoming just another event on this summer's sports calendar.
Three days after the Soviets stunned the world, the president of the L.A. Olympic Organizing Committee, Peter V. Ueberroth—normally cautious in diplomatic matters—had had about enough. He was ready to say what he thought.
In a remarkable survey of the scene for correspondents gathered for a breakfast briefing at the Bel Air Sands Hotel near the UCLA campus, Ueberroth said he felt Soviet leader Konstantin U. Chernenko was "not too dissimilar" in some respects from Jimmy Carter, father of the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott. Both, he suggested, were political hacks who could think of nothing better in the way of foreign policy initiatives than to go after the Games. And Chernenko had the added incentive of revenge. He'd sat at the side of the late Leonid Brezhnev when Carter was pushing his boycott, trying to ruin Moscow's Olympics.
"Here's a man who has just finally gotten in power," Ueberroth said of the 72-year-old Chernenko. "He has just solidified...all the right titles and all the right positions, and people are saying, 'O.K., world affairs? Let's see, here you are now, you're in charge. Let's see your action.' And he looks at the problems the Russians are facing...and here are the Olympic Games. I mean, that's a fairly vulnerable item. And just whack at it."
So, now, Ueberroth declared, the L.A. Olympics are in the same state as the Moscow Games were four years ago. But unlike in 1980, the U.S. Government, in Ueberroth's view, isn't holding up its end. "President Carter used all the influence of this nation, our ambassadors, our consuls general around the world, our power brokers, our influential friends, used all of those [to win support for the Moscow boycott]," he said. "And the Soviet Union did the same thing [on the other side].
"That's going on now again, except it's, so far, kind of a one-way struggle. I mean, the Soviet Union is taking action. Our little committee, which wants to put on a sporting event, has an envoy in China and a few other places." The Reagan Administration, he argued, ought to be helping more than it is to prevent the U.S.S.R. from extending the boycott out of the Communist camp into the non-aligned countries of the Third World. Meanwhile, Ueberroth said, he puts little stock in the efforts now going on to induce the Soviets to change their minds.
Nevertheless, efforts were being made to get the U.S.S.R. to reverse its decision. Coincidentally, just as the Soviet pullout had been announced, President Reagan had given International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch a letter offering assurances that the U.S. would adhere to all the tenets of the Olympic Charter and that security for Russian athletes and team officials would be tight. Samaranch planned to personally take that letter to Moscow if he could get the appointment with Chernenko that he requested last Thursday. Whether Reagan's words would have any effect was debatable. Last week a Tass columnist wrote, "The peoples of Grenada, Lebanon, Nicaragua and other countries know the real worth of President Reagan's assurances."
Meanwhile, an IOC summit meeting to discuss the boycott was called for this Friday, May 18. The IOC's executive board would be joined by representatives from the commissions of the Olympic movement, nine international sports federations and eight national Olympic committees, as well as former IOC president Lord Killanin, who was in charge when the U.S. boycotted in '80. At a press conference in Moscow on Monday, the U.S.S.R.'s sports minister and Olympic committee chairman Marat Gramov said the Soviets would attend that meeting but insisted that the decision not to go to L.A. was irrevocable.
So much for the idea of a private Los Angeles Olympics, free for the most part from government influence, a glorious demonstration to the world of the free enterprise system. Now the 1984 Games, like so many others, are smack in the middle of world power politics. It's the U.S. vs. the U.S.S.R.—not on the playing fields, but in the world's embassies and conference halls, and in the headlines of the news, not sports, sections of the world's papers.
It took a long time to get to this unhappy point, and over the past few months there had been occasions when it seemed this ruinous juncture would never be reached.