A melancholy inevitability comes with the Olympic Games every four years. The Games will be touched by ugly politics. You could look it up. Dissident students were gunned down by Mexico City police in 1968. Israeli athletes died at terrorists' hands in Munich. At Montreal in '76, the Canadians wanted Taiwan kicked out. And now, for 1980, we go to Moscow.
"How," asked Peter Osnos, "are you going to cope with political interference in that most political of countries? In Moscow in 1976, on TV coverage of the opening ceremonies parade, it went from Ireland to Ivory Coast. They just snipped Israel out of the tape. How will you handle that?"
Until evicted, Peter Osnos was The Washington Post's man in Moscow. When the Soviets decided they didn't like the way he reported the news, they told him to get lost. So there he was at lunch yesterday, asking how anybody can expect Moscow to put on the Olympics without creating a political firestorm.
F. Donald Miller, executive director of the United States Olympic Committee, said all the things you would expect in answer. Mainly, he assured everyone that he had been assured by the Soviets that they wanted the Olympics to be a showcase for their republic. And Miller said the International Olympic Committee had assured everyone that the Soviets had assured the IOC it would follow all the rules.
Somehow, all those assurances were not reassuring.
That's because, by Miller's own admission, the Soviets already have made one attempt at controlling press coverage of the Games.
They don't like Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. They see the network as a creation of the American CIA established to broadcast what they regard as subversive material. So, Miller said, the Soviets tried an end-run to keep RFE/RL out of Moscow.
"There was an effort to change the IOC rules, in effect saying that the only media that would be accredited would be those broadcasting back to their individual countries," Miller said.
At first Miller would say only that "Eastern countries" wanted the rule changed "along with their African neighbors." Pressed as to which "Eastern countries" he meant, Miller said, "The USSR is the catalyst behind it."
At a meeting of the IOC press commission in Barcelona last October, the rule was not changed. If it is to be changed, it would happen at a meeting of the IOC executive committee sometime this year in Athens. Miller said he didn't expect any change, and Osnos, for one, was astonished.
"Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondents covering the Olympics in Moscow," he said, "would be a breakthrough of extraordinary dimensions." His tone was heavy with disbelief that such a thing would ever happen.
What, Osnos wanted to know, was the U.S. Olympic Committee prepared to do if the Soviet Union refused to have Israel, say, or Chile into Moscow?
"We're prepared to make the International Olympic Committee follow its rules," Miller said. "Mr. Brezhnev and the Soviet Olympic Committee all have agreed to follow the IOC rules - and the USOC must insist, then, that the IOC follow its own rules."
Miller spoke of the Taiwan affair of 1976. The Canadian prime monister, Pierre Trudeau, unilaterally decided he didn't want the Taiwanese in his country. For a while, the IOC, under whose rules the Taiwanese qualified for an invitation and free passage to the Olympic site, equivocated in the face of Trudeau's order.
"If Moscow or Russia violates the IOC rules in 1980, we will look to the IOC to enforce its rules," Miller said. "And if the IOC doesn't do that, then the U.S. will do the same thing it did in 1976. We'll strengthen their backbone for them."
In '76, the United States threatened to drop out of the Olympics if the IOC let Trudeau have his way. An American exodus would have been catastrophic to those Games and would be to any Games, be they in Montreal or Moscow.Beyond the psychic damage of such a withdrawal, the Olympics - and the host country - would suffer a terrible financial defeat.
That's because of the television deals. Without the U.S. athletes participating, there is no TV deal. That was in the contract in '76 and is written in again. No U.S., no $81 million TV deal for the Soviets. And about $10 million of that money goes to the IOC.
"We have the necessary power to turn the screws on the IOC," Miller said. "We are prepared to see that the IOC enforces its rules."
And what if the Soviet Union ignores the IOC rules? What if it invites only those countries it judges holy instead of the 136 meeting IOC rules? What if the USSR refuses visas to people accredited by the IOC to enter the Olympic site? Is the USOC ready to deal with all this?
Miller said a worrisome thing."If it ever comes to a point when its way beyond our committee's capability, we'll say to our government, 'Take it.'"
Then we'll truly see some politics.