Has the Olympic boycott failed? The Soviet Union hopes we will think so, and many Americans seem ready to agree. But from a Soviet point of view, the boycott is hardly a failure -- hardly a triumph either, but still, both humiliating and a cause for deep concern.
On simple sporting grounds, this Olympiad will be a counterfeit article, especially for the Soviet public. In Russia, the Olympics have been primarily a Soviet-American contest for many years, even as other countries began to take medals away from the two superpowers. So the United States' absence alone destroys much of the excitement of the Olympics, and destroys also their legitimacy as a real contest of the world's best athletes.
But the boycott long ago became something more than a sporting issue. Once the president of the United States adopted the cause, it became a symbolic political confrontation. It is here that many people see a failure, pointing to the number of West European countries that will be represented at the Olympics as proof that, in this confrontation, the Soviets have won the gold medal.
This is wrong -- at least from a Soviet perspective. The significant question is the realtive importance -- to the Soviet Union -- of the various nations participating in or boycotting their Olympiad. As a matter of fact, a serious Soviet student of world affairs who was asked to name the four countries outside the Soviet empire that are most important to the U.S.S.R. would list China, the United States, West Germany and Japan. No other countries have anything like the significance for Moscow of those four. All four are boycotting the Olympics.
The fight over the boycott has obviously provided some comfort to the Russians. It has demonstrated that many Western countries, including members of NATO, are much less concerned about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan than the United States is -- or that they are too afraid of Soviet power to show their true concern by joining the boycott. The fight has reminded the Soviets that the anarchic, uncontrolled (that is, democratic) societies of the Western world can still be manipulated to Soviet advantage -- for example, sporting organizations can defy their governments. The fight over the boycott and attendant events have reminded the Russians that the French would rather be anti-American than right, or even sensible -- but this wasn't news to the Russians. (Nor is it news to the Russians that the French maintain an independent thermonuclear force whose rockets are aimed at Moscow, Leningrad and Kiev, not New York and Washington.)
The boycott contest has demonstrated anew that the American president is an ineffective leader, unable to argue a case persuasively or persistently. Carter provided no clarion from Washington for pro-boycott Europeans. On the contrary, the confusion in Washington about big issues of foreign policy during the last five months contributed to European uncertainty and, ultimately, indifference to the Olympic boycott.
It is revealing that public opinion in both Britain and France remained overwhelmingly in favor of Olympic participation and that both countries will participate. Opinion in West Germany favored the boycott, and the Germans are staying home.
The Russians did not need an international struggle over an Olympic boycott to learn that the West is less than unified, or is led unimpressively at the moment, or that the Soviet Union is currently on a good wicket in world affairs. All of that is old news in Moscow.
The new news is less good for the Russians: all the most important nations in the world -- again, from a Soviet point of view -- are united in their reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan, and they are supported by a lot of other countries, including many the Soviets have been courting for years.
The Soviet Olympiad -- an event the leadership coveted for years, prepared for lavishly and counted on to advertise the legitimacy and glory of Soviet power -- has been effectively spoiled. And even the imperfect Olympic boycott will probably be sufficient to raise serious questions -- if not right away, then later on -- among Soviet citizens about what their government has done in Afghanistan. This is an important matter for the Soviet leaders, as their stubborn silence on the matter attests. They have found it impossible to confide in their citizens the size of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the number of casualties they have suffered or anything about the hostile reactions they have encountered.
The Olympic boycott never offered an opportunity to undo the damage done by the Soviet invastion of Afghanistan. Nor should the boycott be seen as the only available litmus test of the Western allies' willingness to stand up to the Russians. Last December's decision by NATO to deploy new medium-range missiles in Europe was a much better test, and it was met.
The boycott, in fact, was never more than an attempt to discredit the Soviet leaders at home and abroad while demonstrating international abhorrence for the invasion of Afghanistan. On those counts it has succeeded.