There was worldwide disagreement last week over the prognosis for the battered body Olympic, following its latest beating by international boycotters. Was the victim still showing vital signs, or should it be given last rites? The editors of the lurid London Daily Mail weren't in doubt. They pronounced the Games dead as a doornail, the day after the Soviet pullout, in a Page One obituary that read in part, "The Olympic Games, as we knew and loved them and then grew to hate them, died yesterday of malice, greed and corruption. There will be few mourners." The sensational London Daily Express spoke with even greater scorn: "Better that the whole rotten mess be interred as quickly as possible. It has been a terminal case for years."
In less strident tones, more respectful observers also described the current injuries as being fatal, or nearly so. The Chicago Tribune editorialized, "If the IOC can hear the death knell of its movement tolling from two ruined Olympics, perhaps it will begin a genuine debate on the reforms needed to resurrect and cleanse the Games."
U.S. marathoner Alberto Salazar said, "It's going to be a death blow for the Olympics if the Russians carry through. It's happened too many times in a row, now." Perhaps the most surprising pallbearer was Toronto attorney James Worrall, 70, a former Olympic hurdler who has been an International Olympic Committee member since 1967. "I've never been a pessimist, but I must say a recurrence of this type seems a tragic blow," said Worrall last week. "This certainly brings us pretty damn close to the end."
The end of the Olympic Games. Even for skeptics and cynics, that's a shocking, somehow unthinkable idea, much like the God Is Dead theory of theology, which was briefly in vogue in the mid-'60s. That passed, and possibly the current reports that the Olympics are breathing their last will prove to be premature as well. But even if the Games aren't at death's door, how much punishment can the so-called Olympic Ideal absorb and still survive?
As everyone knows, every Summer Olympics over the past 20 years has been tainted by politics. Tokyo '64 was the last one to escape without political disfigurement or outright atrocity. After Tokyo came Mexico City in 1968, when some 260 antigovernment demonstrators were massacred on the eve of the Games. Those Olympics also are remembered for Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black power salute. Then came Munich '72, with its heartbreaking, bloody murders, and Montreal '76, with its boycott by 26 black African countries over the perpetual problem of South African apartheid. Finally, of course, Moscow '80 was reduced to a wan shadow of the mighty festival the Soviets so dearly desired, because of the 55-nation boycott organized by Jimmy Carter in retaliation for the invasion of Afghanistan. And now Los Angeles '84 is reeling. Said Sebastian Coe, Great Britain's superb middle-distance runner, last week, "It's as bad as it was in 1980. I think, looking at it again, that the Americans have sown the seed and reaped the whirlwind."
But will the whirlwind continue to howl on and on and on through the rest of the 20th century? Coe again: "The Games have been done a lot of damage, but I think the Olympic movement will survive. I have to say, though, that it isn't functioning in the way it was meant to. Certainly there is no reason to believe that Seoul will be any less of a problem for the IOC in '88 than recent Games have been."
Ah, yes, the '88 Olympics, to be held in the Republic of South Korea. When the IOC selected Seoul in 1981, during a typically opulent get-together in Baden-Baden, West Germany, only one other city, Nagoya, Japan, bid for the Games. One IOC official viewed Nagoya's presentation as "old and complacent," while Seoul's was thought to be "fresh and alive." Besides, a handful of banner-waving anti-Olympic protesters from Nagoya picketed outside the IOC meeting rooms. "They [the IOC members] always remember Denver," says the committee's executive secretary, Monique Berlioux, referring to that city's referendum that forced the '76 Winter Games to be moved from Colorado to Innsbruck. In addition, South Korea showered IOC members with lavish gifts and VIP trips, and Seoul got the nod.
In retrospect, it was an amazing choice. Harry Edwards, a University of California sociology professor who tried to organize a boycott of the '68 Games by black American athletes, was appalled by the IOC's decision. "How is it possible for them to select Seoul and not expect trouble?" says Edwards. "The Soviets and their satellites do not recognize South Korea. North Korea is a client state of the U.S.S.R. The South Koreans accuse the North Koreans of shooting half their government leaders in Rangoon. The Russian military shot down South Korea's Flight Seven. What a setting for terrorism."
Whether the Soviets will 'find South Korea safer than Los Angeles, and thus decide to attend, is anyone's guess. Last week, an aura of melancholy engulfed Seoul. The influential newspaper, Dong-A Ilbo, editorialized sadly, "The Soviet decision reflects the fact that the Olympic Games are being victimized as a target of political bargaining, and casts a gloomy shadow over the future of the sports festival." But Olympic facilities, some quite stunning architecturally, are already popping up around town, and, to be sure, not everyone is assuming the '88 Games will be a disaster.
One utterly predictable optimist is Barry Frank, senior corporate vice-president of Trans World International, who's acting as a highly paid consultant to Seoul in its negotiations with the U.S. TV networks. "Don't worry," says Frank, "everyone will be in Korea in 1988. If any of the superpowers were to pass up Seoul, that would be the end of the Olympics forever, and no country would want that on its conscience."