I for one am thrilled by the decision of the Soviet Union and its satellite countries to absent themselves from the Olympics. Just think—the fear that athletes will defect upon encountering Southern California is greater in the Kremlin than the determination to score the usual political points by way of regimented athletics! Then there is the fear of defeat: former Soviet Olympic Committee psychologist Gregory Reiport, a 1977 defector, observed, "Russians cannot take chances to lose. They can't afford to be second."
Clearly, the "boycott" is a flop. The 142 free and semi-free countries that are sending teams constitute a record total. And what a refreshing precedent it sets to have an international event with widespread and diverse participation—but without granting implicit moral equality to the USSR and its colonies. If only a similar principle could be applied to such bodies as the United Nations.
In principle, of course, sports really ought to be apolitical. Sport is precisely for the hell of it. And even if this is just a remote ideal now, it is one of the more sensible ones around. But with the relentless efforts of the Soviets, following in the footsteps of their brethren the Nazis, the Olympic Games have for decades become politicized beyond tolerance to any genuine sports enthusiast. Sports should be pure indulgence, attracting us on the basis of a desire to excel at physical prowess, or at least to witness the display of such excellence.
Ideally, the Olympics is the vehicle for bringing together the world's amateur athletes, for all to discover and witness the best in sports. Granted, that is now out of the question. Few have enough leisure time to prepare for world-class competition, given the caliber of the athletes produced in part by the mixing of athletics with entertainment, with serious business, and mainly with nationalism.
But all that doesn't compare with what a shambles the Soviets and their puppets have made of sports. For these tyrants, world-class athletes function as gladiators in the global arena. The athletes, regardless of their politics or reactionary birth, are able to acquire exceptional status in society. (At least the Romans got a bit of hedonic joy from their gladiatorial sport, whereas for the Soviets it's all a matter of deadly serious state aggrandizement.)
As in the Third Reich, the Soviets use sports to display what the dictatorship produces—if nothing much good, at least top athletic performers! And to this end no expense is spared, no privilege withheld. Even the risk of widespread embarrassment from defections has thus far been accepted. Moreover, judging by what is now common knowledge about the East Germans, the Nazi experiments to produce super-people are being re-implemented throughout the Soviet orbit.
Before the proliferation of defections by artists and athletes—both groups having been primary instruments of Soviet propaganda for the last 50 years—the Soviets would not have thought of withdrawing from the Games or threatening such action. It would have been a horrendous waste for them to do so. Promising fencers, swimmers, runners, water-polo players, and the rest all received the best possible treatment, as they largely still do, because their performances at international competitions could enhance the partial, askew, but vital image of the Soviet Union.
As I grew up in Hungary, several members of my own family were nationally ranked swimmers and fencers. All of them received special vacations throughout the year when preparation time for the big meets rolled around. For two- to five-month training periods, top athletes were exempted from school or job, justified by the overriding goal of showing the world what Communist Hungary could do—namely, win enough medals to rank 8th in world competition when the country's size might ordinarily suggest a ranking of 30th. (The luxury of socialism includes not having to worry about what really needs producing: the state commands production for image!)
For me, then, it will be a genuine pleasure not to have to witness millions of thoughtless people and the recklessly avaricious media partake of the sadistic display of such life and death struggle, as any Olympic Games with athletes from the Soviet bloc must inevitably be. Of course, there's nothing wrong with enjoying the Olympics—except when it is contaminated by the Kremlin's hidden geopolitical agenda.
More insidious than that is the Soviet bloc's encouragement of grotesque child abuse. Parents train their children for international sports from birth, just so they might gain an exceptional chance in their lives—something possible to the masses only if they manage to give the state intolerable "loyalty" and service. And the successful athletes do, of course, welcome their rare opportunity to escape from socialist paradise, if only for a few weeks now and then.
So in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, doing well at sports isn't just a matter of pride or even self-esteem. Nor is losing just a temporary disappointment. Rather, such is the stuff of great hope and desolation in many families.
With athletes sent by the Kremlin present at the Games, we don't witness sports. Rather, we are again thrown back to the era of the Roman empire "games," in which the only chance for survival and glory was to come out as a victorious gladiator.
Ironically, the Kremlin rightly tabbed President Reagan's expression of regret upon the Soviet's withdrawal as a case of grand hypocrisy. After Reagan was acute enough to designate the USSR an "evil empire," he should have cheered the Soviets' move and their implicit admission that their athletes might be tempted by the freedom of Southern California. He should have regretted only one loss: that of the few Soviet-bloc athletes who might have made their way to freedom during the Games. What's a clear gain for sports at the 1984 Games is a tragic loss for the few who might have escaped their captors.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Bully for the Boycott".