How politics killed athletes' Olympic dreams

"Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games" by Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli. New Chapter Press, 268 pages. $25.95.

Bottom line: The costs of Carter's boycott.

After the United States "lost" the 1960 Olympics, writes David Maraniss in "Rome 1960," "the President's Committee on Information Activities Abroad was instructed to look further into the subject and reached the conclusion that 'some Soviet sporting victories have had certain propaganda benefits' that needed to be counteracted."

From then on, politics played an increasing role until, in 1980, the political tail wagged the Olympics dog —- the subject of "Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games," by Tom Caraccioli and Jerry Caraccioli.

"Boycott" effectively paints the background of the Carter administration's decision to pull American athletes out of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in response to the USSR's brutal repression of Afghan independence. In the process, the book also serves as a poignant tribute to hundreds of American athletes "caught in the middle of a geo-political chess match between super powers."

For many of them, this book will be their only chance to recount their Olympic dreams, most of them bittersweet. For instance, wrestler Gene Mills laments, "I was probably the most dominant wrestler in the world for years, and I can't even get recognized for it because I didn't win an Olympic gold medal. I think about it a lot."

The Caraccioli brothers, authors of "Striking Silver," the story of the 1972 U.S. Olympic hockey team, have done a fine job of presenting the pros and cons of the boycott. (The so-called "Carter doctrine" condemning the Soviet Union is presented in full detail.) They also don't flinch from presenting some of the ugliest facts from the debate which preceded the boycott —- for instance, that many delegates were resentful and felt that they had been strong armed by the administration with, among other things, threats of legal action to prevent American athletes from competing in Moscow.

Ultimately, the Caracciolis feel, "The delegates knew that if they voted against the president, the future of the United States Olympic Committee would be irrevocably damaged."

While the reader will appreciate even-handedness in the presentation of the facts, one wishes for a little less of the spin doctoring of the sort done by former Vice President Walter Mondale, who defends the administration's decisions to call for the boycott by comparing the Russians in 1980 to "Nazi Germany at the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics." Hitler "tried to use the games to legitimatize his hideous government. . . ."

Mondale should have thought that argument through: President Roosevelt's decision to allow U.S. athletes to participate in Berlin in 1936 resulted in a massive humiliation to Hitler thanks to Jesse Owens and numerous other American athletes. We are entitled to ask what the propaganda effect might have been if the American team had been allowed to compete and won —- might not the Summer Games have produced a victory commensurate with that of the U.S. hockey team in the Winter Games?

Certainly that's what Debbie Landreth of the women's volleyball team thought. After watching the hockey team win, she felt, " 'That's us! We're winning a gold medal.' That is what we are working towards." Not having gone to the Olympics left her feeling empty: "While I know I was on the Olympic team according to the Olympic Committee and everyone else . . . it's with an asterisk."

It's hard to close this book without agreeing with swimmer Glenn Mills, who twenty-eight years later believes that the Carter administration's only function should have been to "butt out. The U.S. government has nothing to do with sport. They don't support us financially. Never have and never will . . . anyone who has ever been involved in international athletics will realize the way we're going to bring this world together is by kids coming together to compete."

Stated another way, by Mondale himself, "The athletes were asked to pay a price that couldn't be repaid."

Allen Barra is an author who writes about sports. His book "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee" is due out March 2009.

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