At one point in the forced conviviality, as the 300 members of the U.S. Olympic Committee's House of Delegates assembled last weekend in Colorado Springs, USOC President Robert J. Kane was asked if he had kept a journal of his experiences during the 3½ months since President Carter had broached the idea of an Olympic boycott. Kane's sad, soft eyes narrowed as he said, "No. I couldn't stand to review anything this painful."
Kane and the USOC and the nation's 35 national sports governing bodies, not to mention its finest athletes, were inextricably caught in a vise of conflicting duties and tightening government pressure that was forcing the keepers of U.S. amateur sport toward a decision they were charged by their constitution—and for many, by their consciences—not to make: withholding the U.S. team from the Moscow Olympics.
Yet that was the decision they would reach, by a 2 to 1 margin. And in the end, though they had proved that they held their duty to their President higher than their yearning for the contests they had trained and planned for, the pain still showed. They were left exhausted and melancholy, and in some cases embittered.
Until the somber vote last Saturday afternoon, the USOC had played for time. In late January its executive board had stated it would bow to Carter's wishes if he felt that going to Moscow was harmful to national security, but the USOC would leave the final decision to its full House of Delegates. The hope was always that something would happen—perhaps a broad shift in public opinion away from favoring a boycott, perhaps a Soviet gesture in Afghanistan that could justify a modification of U.S. measures protesting the invasion. Neither had occurred.
But neither had the Administration's appeals for broad international support borne immediate fruit. Carter's call to shun the Games had caught the major Western-bloc countries by surprise, and hastily organized task forces in the White House and State Department took some time to learn the peculiar, rigid ways of international sports organizations, in particular the national Olympic committees, which pride themselves on independence from governments. There was perhaps not a quick enough understanding of the strength of the international feeling that sport, unlike business or cultural exchange, ought to be kept immune even from war. Irish Amateur Athletic Federation President William Coghlan—father of miler Eamonn—gave voice to this conviction by saying, "It must be remembered that Great Britain, now supporting the boycott, herself invaded Afghanistan over the Khyber Pass something like 25 times. She's still in Ireland. Yet civilized people set that aside when we compete." Thus, international sports bodies turned a deaf ear to the Administration's call for alternative Games.
When the British Olympic Association voted three weeks ago to send a team to Moscow against the wishes of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the USOC began to nurse secret hopes that it, too, might challenge its government. Then the White House began to bear down. Sports officials were invited to the State Department for strongly worded briefings which not only presented the Administration case that a boycott was a crucial element in a coordinated U.S. response to a dangerous situation in Afghanistan, but also made it clear that extraordinary measures would be taken to see to it that the USOC had no choice but to comply.
Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti said the President could prevent athletes from participating in the Games under provisions of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Carter, speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on Thursday, the day before the USOC meetings would convene, said, "If legal actions are necessary, then I will take those actions." At a meeting of Congressional leaders, it was reportedly suggested that the tax-exempt status of sports organizations be examined if the boycott were not supported. There was evidence as well, despite denials from White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler, that certain corporations were pressured to withhold support from the USOC, already $1.2 million shy of reaching its goal of $4.4 million in contributions for the first quarter of this Olympic year. Sears, Roebuck and Co. threatened to withhold a promised contribution of $25,000. While not admitting to knowledge of specific arm-twisting, former Treasury Secretary William Simon, the USOC treasurer, said, "The very fact that phone calls were made is in itself tragic."
AAU President Robert Helmick was incensed, saying, "We cannot allow the government to set a precedent here, because the precedent is pure coercion. Should government influence corporations on how they donate to charities? Should we stand for selective tax-exempt status? Selective lifting of passports?"
The athletes' feelings quickly shifted from eagerness for debate to awed recognition that the Administration would stop at little to have its way. "I didn't realize this whole thing could get so vicious," said Doris Brown Heritage, a five-time world cross-country champion.
"This kind of pressure is like death," said four-time Olympic long jumper Martha Watson. "You don't really think about it until it takes someone you love." Indeed, some athletes said their thoughts seemed an echo of those they had at the time of the Olympic terror in 1972 when, identifying with the doomed Israelis, they felt themselves hostage to men who were incapable of understanding their values, who only craved the attention they drew.