To officials of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), the selection of Moscow more than five years ago to host the 1980 Summer Games is like a nagging headache that suddenly turns into an incapacitating migraine.
Even before the International Olympic Committee (IOC) formally accepted Moscow's bid at its meeting in Vienna in October 1974, some Americans in the Olympic movement voiced apprehension about holding the world's most visible sports extravaganza in a Communist country for the first time.
They foresaw problems in organization, in provision of creature comforts, and in the possible limitations of free movement by athletes, journalists and spectators, which is mandated in the Olympic charter.
They anticipated Soviet conniving to give Eastern bloc athletes unfair competitive advantages.
Most of all, they feared that the already rampant politicization of the Games would reach its zenith in Moscow, surpassing even the 1936 Nazi Olympics in Berlin.
The modern Olympics, televised and reported in nearly every inhabited part of the globe, can be an enormous propaganda vehicle. Some Western skeptics were certain from the outset that the Soviets would exploit the quadrennial spectacular to the utmost, turning it into an athletic May Day parade, a showcase for Soviet power.
No one knew precisely how international politics would be manifested in the Moscow Games, but there were these lingering misgivings. The potential for a political eruption that would strike deep at the heart of Olympic ideals and the staunchly held IOC notion that politics and sport should be separate was almost too great to contemplate.
With the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan barely six months before the scheduled July 19 opening of the Games, and the exacerbation this week of the renewed Soviet crackdown on dissidents, the USOC's worst fears have been realized. The organization is in the midst of its own Apocalypse Now.
"This is worse than anything I ever imagined," a high-ranking USOC official said with a sigh today. "An unmitigated disaster."
The USOC executive board is meeting here this weekend. Its regular agenda has been thrown out in order to consider one urgent, overriding question: under what circumstances, if any, will the United States participate in this summer's Olympics?
When it begins its deliberations Saturday morning, the board will have before it a firm letter from President Carter to USOC President Robert J. Kane. The president urges "the USOC, in cooperation with other national Olympic committees, to advise the IOC that if Soviet troops do not fully withdraw from Afghanistan within the next month, Moscow will become an unsuitable site for a festival meant to celebrate peace and goodwill."
The president has requested that if Soviet troops remain in Afghanistan past Feb. 20, the USOC pressure the IOC to shift the Games to another site or sites, cancel or postpone them. Failing that, since the IOC has said adamantly that it is "legally and technically impossible" to move the Games, the president has asked the USOC not to send an American team to Moscow.
The House of Representatives Thursday approved, by a 386-12 vote, a resolution supporting the president's position. The Senate is expected to concur next week, and opinion polls show the majority of the American public to be in agreement.
For a number of practical, political and financial reasons, the USOC can scarcely afford to take a position contrary to that of the administration, Congress and the American public, which provides most of the organization's funds in private and corporate contributions.
The USOC appears in a classic position between a rock and a hard place. It must defy either the parent organization from which it derives its authority, the IOC, which insists that politics not intrude on the Games, or the American government and people, from which it derives its legitimacy and funds.
Looking back, the USOC must wonder why the IOC was told that, in the Soviet Union, bureaucratic tape is truly Red and often imponderable. It was told that Moscow is a drab, dreary city where hotel rooms are spartan, tourist services maddeningly backward and the food challenges the notion that man cannot live by bread and borscht alone.
It was told that the Soviets would hog the best training facilities, while athletes from the rest of the world would have to compete under the psychological burden of an alien environment and overtaxed practice facilities. p
Also expressed from the beginning were deep-seated fears that politics would somehow overshadow sport in Moscow, a city that many considered an unworthy host because the Soviet Union practices political and religious repression that seems incompatible with the idealistic IOC charter.
Influential Jewish groups, citing persecution of Soviet Jews, told the USOC repeatedly that Moscow was no place to conduct a sports festival reported to celebrate the human spirit.
Later, the high-priced auction of television rights to the Moscow Games became an ugly, brutal affair fraught with sensitive political overtones. The Soviets made it obvious that they wanted not only megabucks from one of the U.S. television networks, but also "some kind of favorable political coverage," as then-CBS Sports President Robert Wussler put it.
The Soviets' idea that political propaganda was part of the TV bargain wound up before Congress. Network executives were grilled thoroughly in hearings on such questions as how they would protect their journalistic integrity against Soviet strong-arming, and how much sophisticated equipment they intended to leave behind at Gosteleradio, the broadcast arm of the Soviet government.
NBC finally won the grotesque and intrigue-filled bidding for $87 million early in 1977. Network President Robert Mulholland promised Congress -- not altogether convincingly -- that NBC would resist all propagandizing and would not leave a single bolt or piece of cable behind.
All this is ample evidence that the USOC had reason to be uneasy, even before the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan put the committee into its current, painful limbo. So the question remains, why was Moscow awarded the Olympics in the first place?
Essentially, the answer is that the Soviet capital was running unopposed. The only other bidder was Los Angeles, which the IOC encouraged chiefly in order to keep up the appearance of healthy competition. But Los Angeles spent only $54,000 on its late and low-key presentation, compared to several million spent by Moscow in an extravagant two-year campaign. It was like Alfred E. Neuman running for president against Jimmy Carter.
The number of cities applying to host Olympics has dwindled steadily over the years as the cost of staging the Games, in the manner to which the world has become accustomed, has multiplied exponentially.
The economics of any Olympics are deceiving. The costs of building housing, transportation and other facilities required in the normal course of municipal expansion -- not to mention stadiums, arenas and other desirable capital assets -- are regularly figured as part of the cost of Games. In addition, there are the short-term expenses in staffing and operating a two-week sportsfest.
But all potential Olympic host cities, as well as the IOC, were scared stiff by the stratospheric cost overrun and building delays associated with the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Grandiose construction plans never were completed, and the IOC sat on pins and needles for two years wondering whether enough construction would be completed to hold the Games at all. In the end, Montreal wound up with a billion-dollar budget -- four times the original projection -- and a huge debt, as a legacy of the Games, for its taxpayers.
The most attractive prospect of Moscow was that the Kremlin guaranteed that the site would be ready. The chairman of the Moscow Organizing Committee was the third-ranking member of the Soviet hierarchy, and could speak with authority for the totalitarian regime.
In fact, Moscow has done a remarkable job in readying Olympic facilities, but only by suspending virtually all other construction and assigning workers to Olympics projects around the clock. This is what the IOC knew it could count on.
There were other reasons the IOC favored Moscow, which had narrowly lost out to Montreal -- with Los Angeles a distant third -- in the bidding for the 1976 Games.
The Soviet Union, which had two of 61 IOC members at the time, had dominated overall medals standings in the previous two Olympiads. With the growing involvement and success of Eastern bloc athletes, it seemed inevitable that the Games should be held behind the Iron Curtain sometime.
Some Americans and Western allies tried to engineer a compromise Third World site for the Games, suggesting with grim irony, as it turned out -- Tehran as an alternate choice. Staging the Games in the Persian Gulf region could be a bridge of friendship between East and West, they argued, and surely the shah was a sports fan with enough money to build necessary facilities.
But the climate in the West toward relations with the Soviets was relatively cordial in 1974. Western trade and tourism with Moscow were expanding dramatically, and there were an increasing number of sports, cultural and scientific exchanges taking place.
The major obstacle to Moscow seemed to be the Soviet Union's traditional resistance to large influxes of foreigners, buttressed by strict controls on freedom of movements by the press.
This was the argument on which Los Angeles based its last-ditch attempts to host the Games.
"We guarantee, without any reservations, freedom of movement for all athletes, officials and international visitors to the Games, not only in our city but throughout our country." Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley told the IOC on Oct. 22, 1974, without specifically mentioning Moscow by contrast.
Afterward, IOC members said that Los Angeles' modest but impressive presentation narrowed the vote taken the next day. The vote was never made public but unofficial sources said was 39-22, in favor of Moscow.
The Soviets assured the success of their long campaign -- which had been helped along by oceans of vodka and Georgian cognac, buckets full of caviar and a slick, multimedia public relations campaign costing billions of rubles -- by promising to abide strictly by IOC rules.
To date, the Soviets have not broken any IOC rules. Notably, they have said that Israel, Chile, mainland China and other nations not invited to their Spartakiade last summer will be welcome "because invitations are the prerogative of the IOC." They consistently have lived up to the letter, if seldom the spirit, of the IOC charter.
"Technically, the Soviets have not abridged any IOC rules," USOC President Kane told the House Foreign Affairs Committee in testimony this week. He explained why he thinks the IOC will not accede to American wishes that Moscow be stripped of the Games.
"There is no rule against invading a neighbor, I take it," Rep. Daniel A. Mica (D-Fla.) retorted pointedly.
Kane nodded his head embarrassedly, and went on to say that the IOC was "most irritated at us" for introducing what it considered blatant political interference into the 1980 Games.
Such is the uncomfortable dilemma of the USOC as its longtime headache -- Moscow -- grows inexorably into a migraine of Olympian size.