SI Vault
Ron Fimrite
July 28, 1980
The glittering opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics was tarnished by the 62-nation boycott, symbolic protests of 16 participating countries and bad vibes in the Village
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July 28, 1980

Only The Bears Were Bullish

The glittering opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics was tarnished by the 62-nation boycott, symbolic protests of 16 participating countries and bad vibes in the Village

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It was almost as if some mad choreographer had decided to introduce a little comic relief into the grand spectacle of the XXII Olympic Games' opening ceremony last Saturday in Moscow's Lenin Central Stadium. The brilliantly costumed national teams, each preceded by a Soviet woman holding an identifying placard and by a flag bearer, would pass in review—the Indian men in orange headdress, the Cuban women entirely in red, the Ethiopians in ceremonial robes—and then along would come a Dick Palmer, a solitary English gentleman in a blue blazer, carrying only the Olympic flag, leading no one, appearing for all the world like a chap on an afternoon stroll who found himself in the midst of a, to him, incomprehensible procession from which he was unable to extricate himself.

But it was a chilling solemnity, not comedy, that Palmer, secretary to the British Olympic Association, and his fellow lonely strollers added to what is traditionally a joyous occasion. In the final accounting, 16 of the 81 competing nations in these diminished Games refused to carry their national flags into the stadium as a token protest against Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and, as Palmer would say later, "the exploitation of the Games for nationalistic purposes." Significantly—though not surprisingly—the team from Afghanistan, reduced to 17 members through defection, and death, received one of the louder ovations of the long day.

The mute protest of the 16 nations brought home the reality of the Games. Half of them left their teams behind in the Olympic Village; seven were represented only by Games functionaries, and Palmer was Great Britain's sole marcher. "A lonely thing out there," he said. Five men marched for New Zealand, but they carried a black flag on which the olive branch of peace and the five interlocking rings of the Olympic emblem were superimposed in white. The New Zealanders marched to murmurs, not cheers.

Still, these teams were in Moscow, many of them in defiance of the wishes of their governments. Sixty-two nations, including, of course, the United States, refused to participate. The boycott inspired by President Carter may not have succeeded as he had hoped, but the absence of athletes from the U.S., West Germany, Canada and Japan has made the Games little more than an Eastern bloc party, intelligence which the Soviet organizers have tried mightily to suppress.

The Olympic flags carried by the protesting nations were not shown on Russian television, and if no team followed the flag bearer, as with Palmer and the British, the camera moved deftly to the next contingent. The only note of Palmer's action was taken by the Soviet TV commentator, who said, "There is the clumsy plot that you all can see, against the traditions of the Olympic movement." He also remarked that Palmer's form of protest was linked to the U.S. boycott, carried out by "nations in conflict with their governments."

Lord Killanin, outgoing president of the International Olympic Committee, did persist in raising the unmentionable issue from time to time. In welcoming the participants and officials in the opening ceremonies, he reserved special commendation for "those who have shown their complete independence to travel to compete despite many pressures placed on them." And earlier in the week, at the opening session of the IOC meetings in Moscow, he advised the delegates that "I deeply regret that many athletes, either through political dictation or the dictates of their own consciences, are not here with us at the Games. Let me stress again...that I believe the athlete is frequently the victim of sports administrators." Killanin also jabbed at Carter when he said, "If football and baseball had been in the Olympic Games, perhaps we would not have had a boycott." But Killanin, who will pass the presidential torch, as it were, to Spain's Juan Antonio Samaranch when the Moscow Games conclude, could not have objected to the protesting flag bearers, for he, too, has long objected to the nationalism rampant in the Olympics.

In Moscow, the Olympic defectors were scarcely mentioned, as if by ignoring them they would, in a sense, go away. And yet the people knew. A young teacher from the Ukraine was asked on a chilly evening in Red Square if he understood why the U.S. had boycotted the Games. "Yes. There is a discrepancy between the policies of President Carter and our government," he replied in perfect English. And what is that discrepancy? " Afghanistan."

The week of the opening ceremonies in an Olympic city is generally an occasion for high excitement, considerable agitation, much confusion and unbearable traffic. But Moscow was more like a ghost town. The comparatively few citizens who did appear on the streets seemed subdued and joyless. Traffic on most thoroughfares was light, and there was elbow room on the sidewalks. As with all things in a nation run by planners, the Olympic calm came off the drawing board. By design, Moscow will be lighter by some two million residents during the 16 days of the Games; Muscovites were "encouraged" to take vacations out of town in the Olympic weeks, and a vastly increased summer-camp program has made the city virtually childless.

Normally, Moscow's population in summer increases by 1.5 to two million as tourists come in from other parts of the U.S.S.R. But Soviet citizens who are not on official business are being turned away at various checkpoints on roads leading into the capital. Private cars are also barred from the center lanes of Moscow streets so that Olympic traffic may pass unhindered. What remains is a city where about two million residents have cleared out and a like number of tourists have been kept out. What would normally be a teeming midsummer metropolis of 10 million has suddenly become a much more manageable community of six million.

Some of the population deficit was to have been filled by foreign Games-goers, particularly those intrepid camera-wielding globe-trotters from the U.S., West Germany and Japan. The city had anticipated some 500,000 visitors during the Olympics, 300,000 of them non-Soviet. Now fewer than 200,000 foreigners are expected. This could cost the Russians more than $150 million in hard currency spent. Americans alone were supposed to number about 30,000, but there were probably no more than a thousand or two in the city last week, and they made themselves notably scarce, perhaps out of embarrassment. Two young women from Connecticut, encountered outside the Kremlin, said they had made their travel plans so long ago they were reluctant to change them.

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