The man the West Germans call "Mr. Olympics" looked surprised when informed that the U.S. government regards him as the pivotal figure in European support for a boycott of the Moscow Summer Games.
No one, he said, had told him that before. He mulled the notion, finally allowing as how it might be an accurate assessment.
But it doesn't seem to matter. Because 66-year-old Willi Daume -- former basketball star, longtime president of the West German National Olympic Committee, influential member of the international committee -- will not be rushed or pressured by anyone into a decision.
In fact, an interview with Daume these days has him asking more questions than answering. On the eve Tuesday of his departure for Lake Placid, N.Y., Daume peppered a visitor with queries. Will America change its mind about a boycott?Will Carter change his? Would the U.S. Olympic Committee go if the American public continues to object? Does Carter have the power to stop a U.S. team from participating? Who is winning the American primaries?
Daume said he is considering suggesting to the International Olympic Committee that it postpone action on the U.S. proposal against holding the games in Moscow this summer and, instead, call a special meeting in Europe two or three months from now to take up the matter. The aim, Daume said, would be to stall and hope the crisis ceases -- and presumably, in the meantime, to ask more questions.
Without question, Daume wants the West German team to compete in Moscow. He wants the rest of the world to be there, too. The official position of his national committee has been to delay a decision. The Official position of the Bonn government has been diplomatic -- expressions of solidarity with the United States, coupled with footnotes that say the final word belongs to the National Olympic Committee, over which the government has, technically, little control.
"We (meaning himself and the government) are of the same opinion that we must win time and not make decisions emotionally," Daume said. "One has to see what can be done."
But this man, described in the West German press as a champion of compromise, at the moment sees no middle road between the superpowers to save the games. "The situation is serious and dark," he remarked mournfully.
To see the Olympics being wielded as a political instrument, Daume said, has left him deeply troubled. But then, "Herr Olympia" is himself no stranger to the mixing of politics and sport.
Until 1964, Daume tried unsucessfully to persuade Bonn and East Berlin to ender a single team in the Olympics. In 1973, he paved the way, in a visit to the People's Republic, for the full admission of China to the Games. Over the years, he has helped smooth challenges posed to the Games by Third World countries.
The 1972 Munich Olympics was Daume's dream come true, and behind it, he acknowledges, was a most definite political purpose -- "to show the world there was another Germany."
Daume termed the prospect of an American boycott, the most critical threat the games have faced. "If the Games don't take place, I believe they will come to an end," he remarked.
Daume -- who frequently has been mentioned as a successor to IOC President Lord Killanin -- rejected the idea of a permanent site for the Summer Games in Greece. He said southern Europe is too politically troubled a region to be reliable. Besides, he added, part of the purpose of the Games is to carry sport and communication to different continents.
Being on the border between East and West, Bonn is sensitive to the currents in both Moscow and Washington.West German public opinion has reflected this double focus -- the country is split for and against the boycott.
Daume said he is a ware of the attention the 1936 Olympics boycott atempt received in America and of the view there that West Germany should, of all countries, be sharply aware of the propaganda value the Soviets could gain if the Summer Games were to go on as planned.
But, in Daume's view, there is a much greater value to be had in sending hundreds of journalists and thousands of visitors to Moscow to "open up the land."
"It is true that sports and politics cannot be separated," he said, "but governments should have an understanding that we are weak partners. We have no money, no weapons, no political influence. All we have is an idea."