America's Summer Olympic Team made it to the top of the Hill yesterday, and the man responsible for putting them there came to extend his "appreciation and respect."
On the fourth day of the "Olympic Honors Program," organized for the team that didn't go, President Carter spoke at a noon "Olympic Medals Ceremony" on the west steps of the Capitol. About 400 Olympians received gold-plated medals "by Act of Congress" as members of the House and Senate, tourists and guests of the athletes watched in a heat that House Speaker Tip O'Neill (D-Mass.) estimated at "110 degrees."
A number of the Olympians, though refraining from any overt protest against Carter's boycott action, were still angry, feeling that they were "used." At a White House reception later in the day, many athletes, though a minority of those present, declined to get into a receiving line to shake hands with the president.
Uninterrupted by applause from the athletes during his speech at the Capitol, Carter defended the Olympic boycott as "a vital and indispensable reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan" and "the only correct course for our country."
"Our participation," the president continued, "would have sent an unmistakable message . . . the United States might not like the idea of aggression, and deprivation of people all over the world, but when it really comes down to it, we are willing to join in the parade. We are not."
Carter departed from his prepared text to appeal to the more than 1,000 guests to "support the American Olympic Committee." He said that "an unexpected byproduct" of the boycott has been a focusing of national attention on the challenges facing the amateur athlete.
The president acknowledged that many of the athletes have disagreed with his decision, but complimented them for having "done so with grace and dignity and with credit to yourselves.
"It is a sign for all time not just of your athletic excellence but also of the dignity and resilence you have demonstrated -- under extraordinary and difficult circumstances," Carter told the Olympians.
"Ernest Hemingway once defined courage as grace under pressure. You, the members of the U.S. Olympic team, have displayed this kind of courage.
"It is no exaggeration to say that you have done more to uphold the Olympic ideal than any other group of athletes in our history."
Wearing the plaid shirts, cowboy boots and jeans and jean skirts issued to them this week by Levi-Strauss, the teams marched down the Capitol runway, in alphabetical order of their sports, to the beat of a patriotic medley played by the U.S. Army Band. Some wore the "Resistor" cowboy hats that also were supplied, but those hats were white, not black. None of the rumored open acts of defiance by disgruntled athletes materialized.
After his eight-minute talk, the president returned to the White House and Donna DeVarona, an NBC sportscaster who won two golds as a swimmer in the 1964 Olympics, took over as mistress of ceremonies. She gave a rah-rah speech that drew cheers from many of the athletes' parents and guests as she asserted, "Americans understand our athletes, but they don't know what it means to get up every morning for eight years to train and prepare for something for a lifetime."
Speaker O'Neill and Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) followed with brief remarks, after which 426 athletes, coaches and managers came forward to have the medals draped around their necks. Dangling near the athletes' navels, the medals from a distance seemed to merge into their shiny Levi-Strauss belt buckles.
Some athletes who opposed the boycott wore badges distributed by the rowing team reading, "I'm Here To Make Sure This Never Happens Again." rEven those who supported it, like canoeist/kayaker Linda Dragan, voiced unhappiness.
"I was feeling just a little bitter," said Dragan, one of only two Olympians who live in Washington, "when all of a sudden the president appears in his blue suit. You see him and hear him. Then I felt more bitterness. Even though I'd like to show some respect for him."
"Everybody wants to see the president," said the other Washingtonian, Robin Campbell, a 21-year-old runner from Eastern High. "The least he could do was come here."
Campbell and Dragan were used to being honored.D.C. Mayor Marion Barry had declared yesterday "Robin Campbell and Linda Dragan Day" and honored the two in a City Hall press conference on Tuesday.
"I am very excited," Dragan said yesterday. "It's a big deal no matter how many races you've won or medals you've gotten."
Campbell said that having her own day was "kind of funny" and added that the supportive public response was more important than seeing the president. "I was ready to see Amy," she added with a smile.
As the ceremony broke up, a graduation mood took over with athletes joining their guests on the grass leading to the mall, taking snapshots and making afternoon plans.
Yachtsman J. Marshall Duane put his medal around the neck of his mother, Patricia. Rhoda Loeb, mother of Duane's teammate Mike Loeb, said many of the athletes' real feelings remained unprintable, adding that the athletes were reluctant to express them for fear of creating a public backlash against amateur athletics.
At the White House reception, hundreds of the Olympians and their guests feasted on cocktail franks, fried chicken, strawberries and cake and lemonade. The President, Mrs. Carter and Amy greeted the visitors on the South Lawn stage.
Twenty-seven of the 30 women rowers didn't join the reception line. Most of the rowers, who have been vocal opponents of the boycott during the Olympians' week in Washington, wore T-shirts saying "Jimmy Carter's Threat to National Security" under the five-ring Olympic logo.
"Nobody wanted to make a scene," said Carol Brown, a rower. "But I didn't want to be recognized by the president so I did not join his reception line. I resent being so-called 'honored' by the person who prevented us from going to Moscow."
Said Brown's teammate Holly Hatton: "All the remarks he made today were directed to voters. If he had any compassion for us, he wouldn't have made political statements."
"Not shaking his hand was my own personal way to disagree with his boycott," said canoe/kayak coach Andy Toro. "This administration is the biggest enemy of amateur athletics in the world.
"There are 2,000 [American] tourists in Moscow, and we are in Washington at the White House. What is this?"
Most Olympians put aside their troubles to take the president up on his invitation to tour the White House. Wrestler Dan Mello, a Marine based in Quantico, got his picture taken with one of the white-uniformed Marine guards under the presidential seal on the second floor. Dick Buerkle, the track and field team's 5,000-meter man, carried his 4-month-old daughter Tera through the house in a "Snugli" harness on his chest. Outside, Amy Carter played frisbee with two women gymnasts, taking time off to meet Peter Marshall, the host of "Hollywood Squares."
A few hours later, Marshall and fellow performers Leonard Nimoy, Andy Gibb, the Lennon Sisters, Patti LaBelle, Jamie Farr and singer Irene Cara worked a bit of magic at the week's wrap-up gala at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.
Maybe it was the generosity of the performers who had donated their talents, or the mushrooming impact of five days of hearing that America loved them anyway, but something kindled in the Concert Hall last night, something that left even rower Carol Brown in tears as she climbed the stage after the show to clasp hands with the stars.
The boisterous Olympians who jammed the front rows seemed to sense that these people cared about them, that they cared about sport. They were right. Backstage before the show, Leonard Nimoy had talked about how a broken nose changed him from a basketball player to an actor. Andy Gibb, recalled his 100 meter sprint record at a British high school. The Lennon Sisters talked of how their father used to stop traffic so he could clock them with a stopwatch as they raced. Marshall told proudly of his son Pete LaCock, who plays first base for the Kansas City Royals.
"I wish that we could be someplace else, watching you do what you do," Nimoy told the athletes, who cheered. Jamie Farr, who plays Corporal Klinger on "M*A*S*H," won roars with his East European humor. "There are three kinds of restrooms in East Germany," he cracked. "Herr, Fraulein, and Hairy Fraulein." And then he told of the time he imbibed Russian beer and shortly after had "this terrific urge to take over the men's room." The crowd loved it.
The lights darkened toward the end and John Bumphus, boxer, appeared at the back of the hall, holding an Olympic torch aloft as he descended the aisle in slow, dignified steps. On stage, Patti LaBelle belted out "America the Beautiful" with fire enough to singe the back rows. "She really cared," said Mike Loeb, with a flushed face, as the Olympians hugged her and the other performers on stage.
Only minutes before, Leonard Nimoy had brought the Olympians to their feet by reading quotations from Lincoln to the music of Aaron Copland's "Lincoln Portrait." "Fellow citizens," Nimoy began, "we cannot escape history."
For a few short moments last night, after a week of trying hard to pull away, this year's thwarted champions left that sad truth in the dust.