I raise my glass to the Olympic idea which, like a ray of the all-powerful sun, has pierced the mists of the ages to illuminate the threshold of the 20th century with hope and joy.
--Baron Pierre deCoubertin, father of the modern Olympics, 1896
I have a wild premonition--some would call it a morbid theory-- about the orgin of World War III: it will be sparked by an incident at Sarajevo in the winter of 1984.
A minor incident, to be sure; but one significant enough to touch off national passions and hot-eyed patriotism the world over. Say, for example, an Eastern bloc judge's arbitrary disqualification of a French entry in the slalom competition. Or a climactic free-for-all in the quarter-finals of a hockey tournament-- not that unusual in hockey, except in this instance it would be between members of the East German and the Polish national teams. One affront to national pride will lead to another, troops will move to the border, then poof!
Sarajevo happens to be the scheduled site of the next Winter Olympics. Appropriate. Given the number of incidents, boycotts and riots that have taken place in international sports in recent years--including the violence that left 43 injured at a rugby match in New Zealand this past weekend--Sarajevo is a likely site to establish, once and for all, the mindlessness of nurturing the 19th century idea that athletic rivalry is the key to improved understanding among nations.
Granted, in the 85 years since deCoubertin initiated modern international sports competition, there have been several events that have passed without charges of stacked judging, cheating, riot, boycott or other serious incident. None, however, has been devoid of politics, despite the pious pronouncements of the baron's heirs to the effect that sports and politics, like church and state, should be separated.
Viewed in this context, black African objections to the current Springboks rugby tour are part of a historic pattern. It is absurd, of course, that John Walker, a New Zealand distance runner, should be barred from a track meet in Italy because of a protest by Kenya regarding racial policy in South Africa. Absurd, but nothing new.
First the Nazis, then the Communists have systematically used sports to demonstrate the supposed superiority of their systems. Even before the Moscow boycott, Americans had traditionally perceived international sports as war carried on by other means. Members of the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics became special heroes not simply because they won the gold medal, but because they won it by beating the Russians.
All this should be kept in mind during the protest over the Springboks' tour of U.S. cities. It is only the latest phase of deCoubertin's Folly, with more sure to come. If the African nations are consistent, American athletes, like New Zealanders, will find themselves barred from competition overseas. If the Soviet Union has its way, the Springbok tour will even result in a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984--which, come to think of it, might be just as well.
There are worse contingencies than an international sports event to which nobody comes, including, if my wild premonition has even a shred of plausibility, an international sports event at which everybody shows ups.