Last week, with the Soviet Union rattling sabres in Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter rattled the starting blocks, hinting that the United States might boycott the Olympic games next summer in Moscow.
The president may be gaining support in political polls, but interviews with a number of prominent athletes and past and future Olympians indicate he is losing their backing.
"He is going to have a hard time getting the athletic vote," said Billy Olsen, a pole-vaulter from Abilene Christian. "But there aren't that many votes in track and field," and that, he said, may be "why Carter is asking us to make the sacrifice."
Many of the athletes interviewed spoke about the sacrifices they have already made in time, effort and income in an effort to become Olympic athletes representing a country that does not subsidize them.
Now, they say, the president might force them to sacrifice the very thing they have sacrificed for.
That, they say, is not fair. They believe in life, liberty and the right to participate in the Olympic Games. Even the president, they say, cannot take that away from them.
Some said they do not take a potential boycott seriously because it is too far off (no one is about to stop training now), while others said they didn't think it would do any good. Many said they were apolitical and thought the games should be, too, even though they know they are not.
All said they felt helpless to do anything about it. "We're victims," said one. "We're innocent bystanders," said another.
Here is a sampling of comments gathered this week from prominent athletes across the country.
Al Feurbach, shot putter, 1976 Olympics: "Basically, I don't think the Olympics should be involved with politics. Often countries inject politics into them, but still we have to strive for the idea. I am 100 percent opposed to any pullout, for any reason. I'd want to go up to the point of the airplane or myself being in danger.
"We make the sacrifice, we pay our own way, we're not connected to the governmet, the military or even the public. We have no real obligation to them. It's not their life dream that's being tampered with.
"It is ironic that we are being asked to give more by the government when we haven't been given anything in the first place."
Ed Temple, coach of the Tennessee State Tigerbelles: "Up till this time, I couldn't see why the government couldn't send us to the Olympics. Now I can see. Now I'm glad it's Americans that send us and not America. n
"President Carter's been running for reelection since 1976. That's how long athletes have been running (to train for the Moscow Games). I wonder how he'd feel."
Renaldo (Skeets) Nehemiah, world-record hurdler: "I was moved by Carter's statement. But '80 is just around the corner and all of a sudden politics and sports are getting mixed up. After all my success and hard work, it would be a shame to miss the Olympics. But you don't really know how serious it is . . . if it's just a political strategy for now or if it's going to stick.
"We'll just have to wait and see," he added later.
Mike Tully, pole vaulter: "It's a terrible situation the athletes are put in, but I'll go along with whatever President Carter wants to do. The Olympics have been political for a long time. In 1972, there was a big shootup and in 1976 the Africans boycotted. If we boycott in '80, the Russians will boycott in 1984. But world peace and national security are a lot more important than having the Olympics.
"It's a little to late to look for a new site. But maybe this will convince them to station it in one city, in Athens in one complex, but that would be too smart."
Bill Rodgers, marathoner: "We're simpy a tool, an implement. No one cares at all, until we can be used for their purposes. Then they can use it.
"Does Carter really believe the world is not going to have a socialist Olympics ever? We played that game with China and kept one-quarter of a million people out. Moscow deserves the Olympics. It's the No. 1 nation in the world sportswise.
"What would I do if there's a boycott?Well, first it would take a lot of pressure off of me. But I would have to see what public opinion is. If most of the American public feels we shouldn't go, that's democracy.
Mark Belger, 800 meters: "We are being exploited to the fullest extent. In college, I had a (communist-oriented) professor. All he did for five months was talk about exploitation, exploitation, exploitation. It was obvious what the question on the final exam would be: what's exploitation? Unfortunately, I only got a C-plus on the test. Now I know the answer. Exploitation is taking away the right to run in the Olympic Games after working with that objective in mind for years."
Dwight Stones, high jumper, 1976 Olympics: "The main thing I have to say is, if we're going to pull this stunt, the Winter Games are in three weeks, why not bar Russia from coming here."
Stones said he would like to see the Summer Games "moved back to Montreal," much as Vice President Mondale suggested last week, "so they can recoup some of the losses they've had even if it meant having them in 1981.
"If he (Carter) were to say, 'Okey, that's it, we're not going; I've spoken and that's it,' I could respect the guy. I don't respect this maybe-we-will, maybe-we-won't perhaps-we might boycott. It's like having dinner with a woman and saying maybe we're going to go home together. Either you do it or you don't. It was yet another firm stand by Jimmy Carter."
Don Kardong, marathoner, 1976 Olympics: "I keep thinking about Woody Allen in 'Manhattan,' where he says, 'I just can't have a good time if anyone is starving to death in the world.'
"You have to look at things in a pos-itive way and what the Olympics are supposed to be about. We're supposed to be able to get together for two weeks and compete as athletes without all the world's hangups interfering."
Franacie Larrieu. 1,500 meters, 1972 and 1976 Olympics: "I don't know the ifs, ands and buts about Afghanistan. I don't know much about international affairs. I'm just living in a fairy tale world, doing my training. It's not my place to say whether it should be done or not. I have simplified my life to the point where I eat, sleep and run. I'm somewhat of a machine. At this point, I don't think about anything much but myself.
"I train so hard all day, when I come home I put my feet up, and it's all I can do. If I was more organized I'd read Time, but I'm not that organized. Quite frankly, I'm somewhat of a bum . . .
"It's a very selfish standpoint. I'd be lying if I didn't say I'd be let down if I didn't get a chance to do what I was training to do for the last two years. Everyone put Mac Wilkins down in 1976 for saying, 'I did this myself. The government didn't help me. He was only saying what everyone else believes but was too hypocritical to say.
"I'm the one that is going to benefit, not the American people, by signing a fat contract and having my name well-known. I'm the one with the metal around my neck. And yet, on the ohter hand, the patriotism that is involved is tremendous when you actually get there."
Mike Shine, hurdler, 1976 Olympics: "I just got a letter from the USOC (Olympic committee) that they sent to all prospective Olypmic athletes saying, 'Don't get excited, continue to train, we have the final say as far as we're concerned going unless the athletes are in danger of being injured.' After I got that letter, I felt better that it's not entirely in Carter's hands.
"When I first heard about it, someone came up to me and said, 'You represent the U.S. government.' And I said, 'Wrong, we represent the U.S. There's a big distinction to be made.
"My first reaction is damn right, I'm selfish. "It's just like anything else. The U.S. is made up of a lot of No. 1s that look out for No. 1 first. If you're going to get ahead, you've got to work to get there, whether you're farmers or whatever. And it's hard to give up something you've worked that hard for."
Franklin Jacobs, high jumper: My dream is to compete in the Olympic Games. But I was never thrilled about competing in Russia. I want to compete, but I want to do what's right for the country. I've seen other countries, and the United States is the greatest place I've ever been and I'd like it to stay the way it is. I don't want to be selfish and just think about the time I've put in."
Robin Campbell, 800 meters: "I think (Present Carter) is just having a hard time right now. He wants to get reelected. He'll say anything."
Steve Riddick, 100 meters, 1976 Olympics: "Personally, if it's unsafe and the man says, 'Stay home,' I'll stay home. But he's just talking about half the Olympics. Why are we having the Russians here?
Cyndy Poor, middle-distance runner, 1976 Olympics: "I was there in 1976. I made it once. If all my eggs were in this basket and it was my only way of fulfilling my need to be recognized, it might affect the way I'd train. There might be an underlying reason not to try as hard."
Earl Bell, pole vaulter: "I have mixed feelings. In one way, the Olympics is just a screwed-up track meet that takes a lot out of you, and you wonder whether it's worth it. But it's also the one meet where everyone cuts it loose. You never hear anyone saying, 'I'm kind of sore,' or I'm going to wait till next week." I wouldn't mind missing it, but it is the reason I've been training so hard all year.
"We're helpless. The president isn't going to call me up and say, 'Earl, this is Jimmy. What do you think we should do?'
'Well, Jimmy, 'm glad you called because I'd kind of like to go.'
"I don't think it's going to do any good. What he's going to do is say, 'Earl Bell isn't going to jump in your meet, so get out of Afghantistan.' It's not exactly going to shake 'em up."
Al Oerter, four-time Olympic gold medalist in discus: "To withdraw on a unilateral basis is passive, isolationist, weak. The only way we can have the games continue and show a certain amount of strength is to field the best team we can . . . I'm not talking about warriers of the cold war. I don't mean that.
"The Olympic ideal of separating politics and sports, perhaps it was valid when they first started in the late 19th century but it has not been true in all of the Games I've been in since 1956.
"In 1956, Hungarians were throwing rocks at Russian tanks. Their country had been invaded. Rather than boycott, they went to Melbourne and competed as well as they could.
"In 1968, a Czechoslovakian discus thrower, Ludwik Danek, was prevented from training because there were Russian soldiers billeted in his training area. He vowed that no Soviet athlete was going to be ahead of him in the Games."
"If the greater good were served by boycotting the Olympics, then every athlete would go along with it. But let that greater good be defined. It can't just be a mystical thing that we hope everything will get better."
It was suggested that the "greater good" Oerter was searching for was in depriving the Soviets of a public relations coup.
"There has always been a certain amount of attendant p.r. because of being the host country," said Oerter. "The question is whether you want to cater to that," he added.
"I can't see becoming a shill for the Russian propaganda mill that will be going on. That I find difficult to square. The Games should not sink or swim on how television covers them. Hopefully, they can separate the Olympics from the propaganda nonsense."
Nick Fuchs, age 12, miler, St. Mark's CYO team: "Why should they listen to the President? He didn't even make it in a dumb race. His field is politics not sports."
Frank Mort, age 11, 400 meters, St. Mark's CYO team: "It's like a witch saying we can't have any more dreams."