The members of the U.S. men's volleyball team were bruised, aching, soaked and singing. In Kharkov, the Ukraine, the U.S.S.R., they'd just beaten the Soviets for the first time in 16 years. The score was 3-2 in games (11-15, 15-5, 13-15, 16-14, 15-6). Not since 1968 had the U.S. team even qualified for the Olympic field; the Soviets were gold medalists in '68 and '80, silver medalists in '76 and bronze medalists in '72. Doug Beal, the U.S. coach, was being congratulated by his opposite number, Vyacheslav Platonov. "We have such great relations with the Russians in volleyball," Beal would say. "We're talking of competing on a home-and-home basis annually.... These teams were building a great sporting rivalry."
That was before the rivalry upstairs got out of hand. As the coaches embraced, Platonov broke the news. The Soviet Union wouldn't attend the Los Angeles Olympics. The Soviet coach had just learned of the decision as he headed to the U.S. locker room. "You could tell he'd had no forewarning," Beal said. Platonov has been the Soviet coach for seven years. The pinnacle of his career was to have been winning a gold medal at this summer's Games. Beal appealed to him for a reading of the situation. "It won't be reversed," he said, shaking his head. And so began a long, puzzling, vexing week of guessing whether this latest spear plunged into the side of the Olympic movement will be the one that proves fatal.
"We went from ecstasy to total disappointment in half an hour," said Beal. "To understand how we feel, you have to know what we've done. How we worked for years to bring the team to equality with the best in the world and what it cost every member. And then we were 10,000 miles away from home and numb."
As other Eastern Bloc nations withdrew, falling in like good soldiers despite what had to be boilingly mixed feelings—Had they not deemed Great Britain's Olympic committee heroic for standing up to Jimmy Carter, and their own government, by sending a team to Moscow?—the Olympic men's volleyball competition was vitiated. When all the cancellations are in, it's likely that four of the top six teams—the U.S.S.R., Cuba, Bulgaria and Poland—will be out.
Thus it was in sport after sport. Women's track and field in Los Angeles will decide nothing without the Eastern Europeans. Swimming without East Germany or the Soviet Union may produce records, but missing will be the conviction that a gold medal means, as it once meant, that its owner was on a single day the best in the world.
American athletes, of course, know how it feels. Mary Decker lost her 1976 Games to injury, her '80 Olympics to the U.S. boycott. With the possible exception of Zola Budd, Decker's only competition in the 1,500 and 3,000 meters are Soviet runners. They filled the three places behind her in the 1,500 at the 1983 World Championships, and the rematch was to be a Games centerpiece. So the announcement was tantamount to hanging a pair of gold medals around her neck. That had been a goal for so long that at first Decker resisted the tarnishing of it. "I'm not going to L.A. to beat the Russians," she said. "I'm going to win an Olympic gold medal. I can't take away their medals from Moscow. They were Olympic champions. And if I win, so will I be." But in her next, low words, she made clear what is vastly more important to her—racing the best. "I'm sure they'll turn up in Europe. Do you think they'll run in Zurich [on Aug. 22]?"
Others found the shock harder to face. Many clung to the hope that since there is time for the Soviets to reconsider and for the U.S. to address the Soviets' stated concerns about security and the integrity of the IOC charter, an accommodation will be reached. "We have to admit we were wrong last time," said Doris Brown Heritage, an assistant women's Olympic track coach. "We haven't gone the last mile, as [White House Deputy Press Secretary] Larry Speakes claimed we have. There's still time. Where is the will? Where is the sense of all we're losing?"
"The Soviets live for this," said swimmer Jill Sterkel, who will be trying to make her third Olympic team. "I thought it would be too hard for them to throw away all they trained for."
Of course, the ones who've done the throwing away aren't the ones who've done the training. That's the galling irony that both sides now have to endure. "The Soviets aren't learning from our mistakes," said shotputter Ramona Pagel of San Diego State.
"Their politicians have shown that they know even less about the meaning of sport than ours do," said track writer Jim Dunaway. "And that's really saying something."