THE OLYMPICS seem to have become a burden to American national machismo. How insupportable that Americans won only 34 gold medals at Montreal last summer, when the East Germans got 40, and the Soviets, 47. What would the Founding Fathers say from the great grandstand up yonder if they knew that we were letting alien and lesser forms of government produce better weight-lifters than our own?
American discontent has been simmering for some time. By the familiar process, the nation got a Presidential Commission on Olympic Sports and now, after a considerable expenditure of time and money, it gets the commission's report. In two volumes. After a brief line deploring the intrusion of politics into this sacred subject, the report gets down to cases. For example: "The East German national anthem became a familiar tune to Olympic crew fans in the summer of 1976. At the Olympic Rowing Basin on the Ile Ste. Helene the anthem was played nine times during the two days of final events . . . the U.S. anthem was never played." Intolerable.
What to do about this kind of thing? The commision notes the advantage of an early start: "Track and field training can begin for children as yound as six to 10 . . ." True. But don't you catch the trace of a German accent here - specifically, East German? It gets worse: "High priority must be given to coordinating development programs through all levels of each sport. The club system must be strengthened, to mesh with school sports. National teams in appropriate sports must be started . . ." Jawohl, Herr Obersportsrat.
The commisssion consistently uses that state-supported athletes of Eastern Europe as the proper standard of comparison. Regarding money, the commission favors getting as much as it can, wherever it can - from taxes, from public contributions, from corporations, from anybody. It's quite true that the present rules on payments to athletes, and on amateur standing, are a tangle of hypocrisy and substerfuge. The commission proposes to make it worse by letting Olympic athletes accept money for anything but competition itself - that is, they could endorse athletic equipment or take salaries from sporting-goods companies or charge whatever the market bears for commercial appearances. But why stop there? Why not simply concede that the old distinctions between amateurs and professional are collapsing, and not only in the Communist countries? It would be fairer to everyone - and a good deal more honest - simple to abandon all pretense that the Olympics are amateur competition.
American athletes have, in fact, done very well in the Olympic games. They come from a country in which only one Olympic sport, basketball, is widely played. Most American's games football, baseball, tennis - aren't on the Olympic list. But the Americans ranked well at Montreal. They were exceeded only by the athletes of two authoritarian countries that, in this endeavor as in others, produce a certain kind of result by methods that - particularly among the obsessive East Germans - are unattrative. This misguided presidential commission hints that the United States now ought to start imitating them. That is one kind of competition in which this country does not need to join.