We will call this event -- and it has dominated sport as no other for weeks -- the Olympic bluff. It has been restricted to three teams: from the Soviet Union, the International Olympic Committee and the White House. After one long and intriguing ride, the White House is trailing badly.
Most Americans are prepared to support the idea that President Carter should use the threat of an Olympic boycott as a way to force the Soviets to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
But the strategy has been suspect from the beginning.When flexibility seemed proper, the administration was unyielding. And when that rigid position was established, there suddenly surfaced more public twists than a luge run.
Muhammad Ali couldn't punch his way out of a diplomatic paper bag. It remains to be seen whether Carter misread the Soviets' regard for the Olympics. He very likely misread the mood of Americans early on -- and continues to do so.
Publicly, he seems to have misled the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Listen to Lloyd Cutler, counsel to the president, during a press briefing Jan. 20, in response to the question of when the president meant for the Soviets to leave Afghanistan or American atheists would not go to Moscow:
"If Soviet troops do not fully withdraw from Afghanistan within the next month, Moscow will become an unsuitable site for the festival meant to celebrate peace and goodwill."
That seemed clear enough, perhaps overly so. But it may well have been the first miscalculation of American passion for Olympic sport.
Americans are wildly apathetic about the Olympic sports, until a month or so before they take place. When athletic budgets must be trimmed, track and field is the first snip. The Winter Games are little more than television relief, a pleasant alternative to "Different Strokes."
So it was entirely reasonable, or to anyone vaguely familiar with the vast gap between professional and amateur sports, that a substantial majority would support Carter's rigid stand. It was part of a grander plan to spank the Soviets, but it was easily acceptable because only athletes would make a sacrifice.
It quickly dominated public thought and very likely caught the administration by surprise.
There were questions slipping into some minds: why Feb. 20? What if that date passed, the Soviets were as appalling as ever and Carter forced the USOC to decline, politely of course, the Olympic invitation?
Technically, the decision is not necessary until May 24. If the Soviets made a significant pullback, say, by March 25 or April 29, American athletes would have been made to suffer unnecessarily.
Perhaps somebody in the White House also realized that, for shortly whispers began to appear suggesting the administration would be willing to yield on the Feb. 20 ultimatum.
Two days ago, less than 24 hours before the IOC would act on a USOC proposal to postpone, cancel or move the Games from Moscow, Cutler told The Washington Post.
"If there were a bona fide withdrawal, or a plan for a bona fide withdrawal (between Feb. 20 and May 24), it would have to be considered. After all, the objective of this is not to inflict a punishment but to achieve a result."
Fine. A realistic deadline was being established after all. Politically, Carter also was avoiding the nasty possibility of denying American athletes the chance to chase their dreams at the very time American voters care deeply about them.
Before that story quoting Cutler appeared, it was read to White House Press Secretary Jody Powell. He said he had "no problem" with it.
The next day, the IOC wrote that it would not budge from its position that the Games will go on in Moscow as planned. But Lord Killanin said it just might. Of couorse it would, if the U.S. gathered enough boycott strength to force the Games to be reduced to a duel meet between the Soviets and East Germany.
Compromise seemed in order. The Games might be saved; the Olympic movement might continue.
In its present form, it should not. That has been my argument for years. But this latest furor comes at the very time that both the IOC and USOC are moving in the direction of making them everything laudable except inexpensive.
Killanin is an agreeable man willing to discuss the notion that the Olympics should be both open and much less nationalistic. USOC officials, especially President Robert Kane, have moved from an almost totally selfish position to one that keeps the athletes uppermost among priorities.
Even the harshest Olympic critic cannot helped being moved now and then by the Games. The American athletes are arguably our brightest and most dedicated; the pageantry of the opening ceremony is memorable; the Soviets have the most appealing ice hockey team on the face of the earth.
With this fresh in the mind, with Americans just catching the Olympic spirit, comes Powell Tuesday, speaking for Carter and saying:
"Under these circumstances, neither the president, the Congress nor the American people can support the sending of the United States team to Moscow this summer. The president urges the United States Olympic Committee to reach a prompt decision against sending its team to the Games."
Powell Tuesday said Cutler spoke without authorization Monday. Neither his position nor his background suggests Cutler did anything of the sort.
What are we to believe?
Carter reiterated Powell's statement during his press conference tonight. When he was asked whether he would change his mind if the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan between Feb. 20 and May 24, he said: "I don't see any possibility of that."
One of the most liberal IOC members, Count Jean de Beaumont said just before the IOC decision was announced and not long after Cutler's statement: "The most important point, as I understand it, is we'll be able to wait until the 24th of May.
"We must have time to settle things . . . it says for everybody the date (to enter or not to enter) is May 24 -- for the USOC, also."
Of the IOC statement, it said: "It does not say the same thing in English and French . . . it was phrased for maximum impact in English. Some impact was lost in translation."
A great deal has been lost in translation of late.