"The thing you must realize," my colleague from West Germany said, "is how much more important the Olympic sports are in Europe than in America. That is why this idea of boycotting Moscow is so difficult for us to accept. I am sure that Edwin Moses, the American hurdler, is much better known in Germany than in the U.S., but no one at home has ever heard of your footballers like Roger Strowback and Frank O'Hara."
Was ist das? You mean in Dusseldorf they don't know Staubach from Strowback, or Franco Harris from Frank O'Hara.
There is nothing like an international viewpoint to broaden one's perspective on a problem. What my colleague from Germany said is indisputably true; Americans tend to be more preoccupied with their provincial professional pastimes than with their provincial professional pastimes than with the Olympic sports, which are followed day in and day out, year around in other parts of the world.
The Olympics grip America's attention for a month or so every four years, when they dominate prime-time television. A Dorothy Hamill, Mark Spitz or Bruce Jenner becomes a household name, and subsequently a millionaire. An Olga Korbut or Nadia Comaneci can turn millions of all-American little girls onto a previously neglected sport such as gymnastics.
But the bulk of track and field athletes, swimmers, weightlifters and gymnastics -- even Americans who are bona fide celebrities abroad -- remain mostly anonymous in America.
This fact is important to understanding why the U.S. proposal to pull out of the 1980 Summer Olympics if they're are not moved from Moscow is so troubling to sports officials and fans around the world.
It is as wrenching an idea as boycotting the Super Bowl or the World Series would be to Americans.
And it inevitably raises the specter of the end of the Olympic movement. If Western nations boycott Moscow, the argument goes, surely the Soviet bloc will retaliate in turn and wreck the 1984 Games scheduled for Los Angeles. The Olympics as we know them would be kaput.
Such fears explain why even such usually staunch American allies as West Germany and France have been hesitant to follow President Carter in calling for the International Olympics Committee (IOC to move, postpone or cancel the Moscow Games as a means of punishing the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan, and in threatening to pull out if the Games go on as scheduled.
The National Olympic Committees (NOCs) of most nations, which according to the IOC charter, are supposed to be autonomous and free of government influence, are opposed to a boycott. Their constituencies are athletes and sports federations, which have vested interests in seeing the Olympics go on. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that a meeting of Olympic committee delegates in Mexico City this week unanimously passed a resolution favoring participation in Moscow.
A Moscow pullout is not yet the popular public issue abroad that opinion polls show it to be in the U.S. Both houses of Congress, sensing the public support in this election year, have given overwhelming approval to resolutions supporting the president's position. If and when backing a boycott becomes such a bankable election issue overseas, politicans there will get behind it, too.
Meanwhile, the governments of many European and Third World countries have told the Carter administration that they privately favor transferring the Games to another site or withdrawing their athletes, but that they are leaving the decision for the time being up to their respective Olympic committees.
Ultimately, however, it will be governments deciding this issue, not Olympic committees and they will be under intense pressure from the State Department to line up with the United States.
The notion that NOC's are insulated from government pressure is a myth. In totalitarian states such as the Soviet Union and its satellites, it is accepted that Olympic committees are arms of their governments. In most Western countries, the NOC's generally go about their business independently, but they remain -- directly or indirectly -- dependant on their governments for funds or legal status.
So it is in the United States. The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) is theoretically as autonomous as any. Its funds come primarily from priivate and corporate contributions. But it was formed by an act of Congress, and was given umbrella authority over amateur sports in the U.S. with passage of Public Law 95-606, the so-called Amateur Sports Act of 1978.
If the USOC were to buck Congress and the Administration in sending athletes to Moscow, that authority could be dissolved more easily that it was granted. Moreover, the $16 million authorization for sports medicine and grass-roots programs, tied into the 1978 bill but not yet appropriated, also could disappear without a trace.
White House counsel Lloyd Cutler has said that if the USOC loses substantial revenues as a result of complying with the president's requests on Moscow, the administration and Congress might be of a mind to make up the deficit. The flip side of the magnanimous gesture is thinly veiled threat: "The government giveth and it can taketh away."
Most western NOCs are in a similar dilemma. They cherish their supposed independence, but would be hard-pressed to defy their goveenments on such a critical issue. They will beat their breasts, exhaust their rhetoric and then knuckle under.
President Carter said in a speech last week that the bloody Soviet subjugation of Afghanistan constitutes "not politics by any reasonable definitiion of that word" but "aggression, pure and simple." Under the circumstances, he said, free nations must make it clear to the Soviets that they cannot engage in such aggression and "expect to conduct business or sports as usual with the rest of the world."
This theme strikes a responsive chord abroad -- not only in Western Europe, Japan, the Islamic nations and much of the Third World. The issue here is greater than sports, and that is why it will not be decided by Olympic committees.
The governments of West Germany and other NATO nations are under enormous pressure from the Carter administration to support its Olympics stand. Reports of the muscle being exercised on foreign ministries and defense departments suggest that this should be a new Olympic sport: Heavyweight Arm Twisting.
Such leverage would probably be enough, but public opinion also appears to be swinging toward support for a boycott. That will be the clincher.
Der Spiegel, the West German equivalent of Newsweek or Time, last week published a poll indicating that 48-percent of West Germans favor sending athletes to Moscow, and 48 percent are opposed. A similar poll one week earlier, before the Soviets exiled dissident Andrei Sakharov, showed 51 percent in favor of participation at Moscow, and only 30 percent opposed.
"Public opinion is growing in the direction of a boycott, even though many people view this as the end of the Olympic Games, and a very big sacrifice," and my German colleague. "There is great pressure to show solidarity with the Americans against Russian aggression, and eventually the government and Olympic committee must go along."
West Germany's is pivotal to the fate of the Moscow Games because it is such an important nation, athletically and politically. If it decides not to go to Moscow -- as Japan did last week -- then France, Italy, Great Britain and the rest of western Europe is almost certain to follow suit.
The IOC -- which is virtually certain to turn down an American petition for moving, postponing or canceling the Moscow Games when it meets here in regular session starting Sunday -- probably could keep up appearances despite nonparticipation by the United States and a few friends. It could not realistically ignore a mass walkout by the major nations of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa -- which is what the State Department foresees.
If such a walkout occurs, the IOC probably would have to meet again in emergency session and grapple with the painful option of cancellation or postponment.
In the United States, the die seems irrevocably cast. If Soviet troops are not fully withdrawn from Afghanistan by Feb. 20, the deadline set by Carter for this highly unlikely action, the president will ask the USOC to decline the invitation to compete in Moscow.
This would probably happen in early March. The USOC, for reasons already elaborated, could hardly help but go along. USOC president Robert J. Kane already has said that, in a matter of national interest, he "cannot imagine the USOC taking a position other than in accord with the president and Congress."
Most observers expect the Soviets to make a concilliatory gesture -- perhaps the partial withdrawal of troops -- far enough after Feb. 20 to make it seem that they are not kowtowing to Carter, but before the other nations make their decision. The IOC deadline for accepting invitations is May 24.