That the Soviet pullout was President Carter's legacy was often heard. "The Americans have sown the seed and reaped the whirlwind," said Olympic 1,500 champion Sebastian Coe of Britain. "But the 1980 boycott was far less devastating than this one could be."
Each division, each generation of athletes denied truly Olympic expression, brings us further from the ideal that gives the Olympic flame its moral heat and light. And viewed that way, the 1980 boycott can seem just a milepost on a melancholy, declining road.
The terror of 1972 was brought about by men who were incapable of understanding the values the Games symbolized—most pointedly, the Olympic truce of the ancient Greeks, who suspended their wars and guaranteed safe passage to allow the broadest participation—men who craved only the attention they drew. The 1976 boycott by black African nations over New Zealand's rugby ties with South Africa advanced the ruinous precedent: Nations were using the Games to pressure other nations. Then Carter acted as he felt he must in '80. He sent Vice-President Walter Mondale to the USOC House of Delegates to win a vote to boycott. There, Mondale said of the U.S. determination to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan, "History holds its breath, for what is at stake is no less than the future security of the civilized world."
As far as most Olympians are concerned, the only civilized players in this tragedy are the athletes. They are the ones brave enough to have worked for years to make it to Los Angeles, even with the knowledge that they could be violated once again. "I shouldn't be surprised, but I am," said discus thrower Al Oerter, 47, whose four gold medals from 1956 through 1968 are sport's finest example of sustained excellence. Oerter has seen what has been lost. "I was competing when the Olympics were relative county fairs," he says. "They were really enjoyable. Now...it's not the Olympics anymore. ABC will call it the Olympics, but it's not. How can it be in the discus if three of the top five aren't there?"
The news, for Oerter, "was like letting air out of a balloon." He had been training with fiery purpose to make his fifth team. ("These are the Olympics. You die for them," he had said after winning in Mexico City in 1968.) Now he thought only of another kind of competition: "Just to go to a place where you can throw and afterward sit outside and eat corn on the cob and drink beer with your friends." Like a county fair.
Unlike 1980, when debate raged over what was right, the athletes' talk was subdued. There was nothing left to decide, only to accept. "I used to be in love with the Olympics," said long jumper Arnie Robinson. "No more. The idea is good, but the Olympic movement has become a farce."
"When I watch The Olympiad series on TV and see the way the Olympics have been, I get so excited I have to go take a run," said marathon world-record holder Alberto Salazar. "But when I think of how Montreal and Moscow were affected by boycotts, and now this, I don't really care as much anymore. God, it must have been fun to be in them in 1972." That last sentence comes as a jolt to one whose store of memories from Munich is largely painful.
"My heart goes out to those athletes in sports with no world championships besides the Olympics," Salazar continued. "Me? I'll get to run the marathon against the top athletes sooner or later, anyway."
That somehow seems to bode the worst for the Games, that a world-record holder, a contender for gold, finds them replaceable.
And he's not alone. Jeff Buckingham, the American record holder in the pole vault, thinks that now the premier event in track and field will be the world championships, inaugurated last year in Helsinki and scheduled to be held every four years, in the year before the Olympics. "I think that's what most athletes will be gearing up for," Buckingham said.