MUIRFIELD, SCOTLAND -- If you believe the formal statements made last week by International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch, the two days of meetings that ended in Lausanne, Switzerland, Wednesday with the Olympic committees of North Korea and South Korea were an abject failure.
But if you read beyond the formal statements, it beomes evident that Samaranch and his IOC colleagues accomplished exactly what they set out to do during those 48 hours.
Samaranch came to Lausanne saying the fourth round of talks between the IOC and the two Koreas would be the last, and that he was determined to leave here with a final agreement. In truth, Samaranch was almost certain there would be no such agreement. What he really wanted to do was paint the North Koreans into an untenable political corner.
And that is exactly what he did.
By offering North Korea the entire men's 100-kilometer cycling race and, more important, the prestigious women's volleyball competition, the IOC did two things -- one insignificant, the other very significant.
Insignificantly, it backed away from its insistence that it had already made its final offer.
Significantly, it sent a message to the rest of the communist-bloc nations. That message was best spelled out by two sentences in the formal communique issued by the IOC. The first said: "The IOC draws to the attention of all concerned its tireless and continuous efforts to ensure the success of the Games of the XXIVth Olympiad and the participation of all national Olympic committees." The second, which concluded the communique said: "The IOC points out and stresses the exceptional and unprecedented character of its proposal in the history of the Olympic movement."
In other words, "Guys, we've really tried."
For Seoul, these Olympics are vital, representing South Korea's chance to show the world how far it has come. In all, if one includes the building of a new subway system, the country has invested about $3 billion in the Games.
That means the South Koreans will go along with whatever the IOC wants. If the IOC says give five sports to North Korea, they will give five sports to North Korea. Only a few items seem to be untenable: the North Koreans being officially named co-hosts, the North Koreans taking part in the opening and closing ceremonies and the North Koreans being awarded all of the soccer competition.
The IOC has assured the South Koreans none of these things will happen. That is why the talks, in truth, were largely semantical. One source said that when the North Koreans brought up the question of hosting the entire soccer tournament, "they said they had been asking for this all along. Everyone just looked at each other because it was the first time it had come up. They change their rules every day."
Everyone changes the rules, however. Samaranch says an offer is final, then makes another one. The South Koreans say they don't want a face-to-face meeting with the North Koreans, then they pose for pictures with them.
But the bottom line for the IOC and the South Koreans is to avoid a repeat of the boycotts in Moscow and Los Angeles. There are 167 national Olympic committees. All of them will receive invitations to the Games on Sept. 17. By Jan. 17, the deadline for accepting those invitations, Samaranch wants the communist bloc to know he's done everything he can and even more. He doesn't care if North Korea participates. He does care about avoiding a boycott. That's what this is all about.
Samaranch has made progress in terms of bringing the two Koreas together. He even got the delegations together at a dinner Tuesday night. Samaranch would delight to be remembered as the diplomat who brought the two countries together, however briefly.
But, realistically, that is not likely to happen. That's why all the offers and counteroffers are little more than a political rain dance. It is highly unlikely North Korea will agree to any offer. The IOC knows this. That is why it is working diligently to stave off a boycott.
Samaranch thinks he can do that. Since the day in 1981 Seoul was awarded the Games, there have been problems. Wednesday, Samaranch laughed when asked if he regretted the IOC's choice of Seoul. "I am the head of the IOC," he said. "I must defend the choice of Seoul."
And if, by some odd chance, the North Koreans accepted the latest IOC offer, Samaranch would be a diplomatic hero. Sources say he even has one last offer up his sleeve, adding women's handball to the North Korean agenda. That may seem insignificant but, depending on how one counts, it could give the North Koreans a means to accept without losing face.
Add women's handball to women's volleyball, men's and women's table tennis, men's and women's archery and a portion of soccer and cycling, and you have eight events in North Korea. The North Koreans said initially they had to have eight sports. This week, however, Chin Chung Guk, vice president of the North Korean delegation, still ticking off men's basketball, wrestling and gymnastics as sports his country must have, has been saying, "Eight sports or events."
That is a tiny shift, adding the word "events," but potentially a significant one. If North Korea does want in -- and many people think it does not -- it can claim a victory by calling women's handball an eighth event.
So, Samaranch has covered that base.
If the North Koreans are simply setting up a rejection and a potential boycott, Samaranch has covered himself this week. Publicly, he has sent out his message of conciliation and negotiation to the North Koreans. More importantly, he has let the rest of the communist bloc know the IOC has done all it can to open the door to Pyongyang.