It was, in retrospect, a remarkable weekend for what we call "the Olympic movement." A time of platitudes and patriotism, perplexity and purpose, pride and prejudice, poignancy and pressure politics.
Anita DeFrantz -- one of the athletes who argued elonquently, but futilely, that an American team should be entered in this summer's Olympic Games in Moscow -- observed early on that this was "an extraordinary moment in history, with the whole world focused on a meeting of the United States Olympic Committee."
Accordingly, the cast of players in the drama extended beyond the usual circle at Olympic conclaves. There was Alexander Ginzburg, the celebrated Soviet Dissident. Vice President Mondale. White House aides, waiting nervously in the lobby as the USOC House of Delegates met in closed session -- Washington: Outside Closed Doors.
In the end, of course, the USOC took the inevitable step of supporting President Carter's demand for a boycott of the Moscow Games, to repudiate the Soviet Union for its military intervention in Afghanistan. By a vote of 1,604-797, the House of Delegates decided that, for the first time, American athletes would not compete in the Olympics.
Two weeks ago, the Carter administration realized that the USOC vote was in doubt. Panic set in with the notion that, despite the president's declarations that U.S. athletes would not go to Moscow, some members of the USOC wanted to vote to send a team and force the president to take legal action to prevent U.S. participation.
Pressure was applied. In Washington briefings, top administration officials told USOC delegates that the Olympic boycott was an integral part of the U.S. response to Soviet aggression. Participation of a U.S. team would be inconsistent with the national interest and security; this was a foreign policy decision, not a political one, they said. The president reinforced this view with telegrams.
The briefings were persuasive. But then the White House -- with what one USOC official pointedly called "over-zeolousness regrettably reminiscent of an earlier administration" -- decided to tighten the screws, just in case. Patriotism was preached with brass knuckles.
White House aides telephoned corporate contributors to the USOC, some of which subsequently withheld payment of pledges pending a proboycott vote. The administration spoke of reexamining the USOC's tax-exempt status. Unsubtle threats were made on the organization's future.
William E. Simon, the former U.S. Treasury secretary who now serves as USOC treasurer, calls these "ham-handed, thoughtless . . . police state tactics." Many delegates shared his resentment. USOC President Robert J. Kane said, "I'm sorry the administration had to resort to this kind of contentiousness. I think it has created a backlash."
Those who opposed a boycott argued their case that athletes are inappropriate weapons in the Cold War, and that a more effective protest would involve going to Moscow and demonstrating on Soviet soil by staying away from the Games' ceremonies.
DeFrantz -- a bronze medalist in rowing in the 1976 Olympics and an attorney -- was especially articulate.
'The Olympic Games are a festival of human achievement, where people come together and attempt to reach goals that have never been reached before . . . That's what we're interested in, continuing that opportunity. We have so few," she said.
"My great fear is that a boycott will create a major rift between the Eastern and Western Blocs that could have grave consequences for international politics as well as international sports. It could bring us closer to war."
But the boycott had equally eloquent spokespersons.
Ginzburg, who spent eight years in Soviet jails before being swapped to the U.S. with four other prisoners for two Soviet spies, told any delegate willing to listen that a boycott would be effective and important.
"It would be a blow to the prestige of the Soviet government and would be considered such by the Soviet people. It could not be hidden. It could deter aggression in other areas," he said. "and it would encourage those who fight for human rights inside the Soviet Union."
Playing its trump card, the administration sent Vice President Mondale to address the delegates at the start of their meeting Saturday morning. He delivered a powerful speech, calling the boycott vote "a referendum on freedom."
Mondale compared the Soviet Union's exploitation of its selection to host the Olympics with Hitler's use of the 1936 Berlin Games to gain international acceptance for the Third Reich. He said the arguments against a proposed boycott in 1936 were the same as those of 1980.
He implored delegates not to repeat history's mistake. "What is at stake," he said, "is no less than the future security of the civilized world."
After the vice president's speech, the delegates closed the doors and began deliberations. The anxious administration aides and 150 journalists began a six-hour vigil, the atmosphere reminiscent of a political convention. "Has Willkie got the nomination?" someone asked.
Ironically, it was Simon -- a pillar of Ronald Reagan's presidential campaign and severe critic of Carter -- who made the most influential speech in favor of boycott.
Defying the president would bring financial ruin on the USOC, but that should not be the basis of a decision he told the delegates. Parochial and political considerations must be put aside when the president makes a national security determination. The good of the country and respect for the office of the presidency must be paramont. Soviet aggression must be condemned, and an Olympic boycott would have a profound impact on the Kremlin.
"There can be no doubt as to what the Soviets are trying to do, and let's face it: the United States is the hope and inspiration of the free peoples of the world. This is what President Carter is talking about . . . Even if we are the only nation to adopt this attitude, that's the true concept of leadership," Simon said. His words carried extra clout because every delegate in the room knows that he wants Jimmy Carter defeated in November.
Simon's speech received a standing ovation . The athletes knew their battle was lost.
The vote came shortly thereafter. Two dozen athletes, disappointed but respectful, went to shake Simon's hand. Many delegates told him he had touched their consciences, and convinced them that they were making a difficult decision for the right reasons.
Soon Kane and F. Don Miller, USOC executive director, both good and decent and dignified men who believe in an ideal called "Olympism," stepped to a battery of microphones. Perspiration glistened on Kane's forehead from the heat of the TV lights and the moment. Tears welled briefly in his eyes when a reporter asked him to express his personal feelings.
"I feel very deeply about the athlete. However, I feel there are other athletes who will come after this year, many of them, and the Olympic movement had to be preserved, and the Olympic committee of this country had to be preserved, and also -- more than anything else -- preservation of our patriotism and support of the president of the United States had to be reaffirmed.
"I am completely satisfied that it was the right decision. At the same time, I feel desperately sorry for the athletes who have been hurt by it," Kane said.
Determination and disappointment. It was that kind of a weekend: political and poignant.