"It ruins everything, especially for me in my event," said Benita Fitzgerald Brown, a hurdler. "I finished eighth in the world championships last summer, and that will mean more to me even if I win a gold medal, because I know I wouldn't have competed against all the best athletes."
"I'm not disillusioned to the point that I won't do my best," said basketball player Lynette Woodard, formerly of the University of Kansas and a member of the 1980 and '84 teams. "But this uncertainty makes it less likely that players coming out of college in non-Olympic years will make it their chief aim to get on the team. A lot of us spent three years keeping up our game. That may become a thing of the past."
"The old Olympians," said Heritage, who was fifth in the 800 in 1968 and tore a tendon and broke bones in her foot while warming up for the '72 1,500, "are the ones who seem most deeply affected by this. I loved the feeling of stepping outside the bounds of nationality for a while. Art does that, and music and science. But only sport can do it so visibly, so powerfully. I felt that. I've been changed by it. I guess you don't know what you've got till it's gone."
Competitor after competitor affirmed the value—and the ability—of sport to transcend politics. "At the level of the athlete—and if I'm not mistaken, this is what it's all about—we respect each other, and I hurt for the Soviets," said gymnast Bart Conner. "We go to competitions and there might be a lot of [KGB] guys around to keep an eye on them, but when you get into a room with a bottle of vodka, it's just athlete to athlete."
"I was taught not to like Russians," said swimmer Steve Lundquist. "That they were the bad guys. But I've liked every one of them I've ever met at swimming meets. I always thought the Olympics were a worldwide forum for meeting, understanding and just having a good time together."
Those views won't change. These friendships won't end. There have always been two Olympics. One is the concern of the organizers, the politicians, the sellers, the television people, the crowds nursing all their vicarious passions. The other is simpler. It's an athlete in the arena, facing the best in the world. It's the chance to test yourself in that crushing, ultimate pressure, to see if you can take it and still summon your best. That crucible is what creates the bonds, what transcends ideologies. And so only the commercial, immense, proud, staggering IOC Olympics are in jeopardy. The athletes, through world championships, or maybe through just calling each other up and naming a place and a time, can find ways to bring themselves together. They'll be less likely to put their faith in the IOC to do it any longer.