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Politics and the Olympics

Politics, in one shape or another, has a way of becoming the unscheduled event at Olympic games, and 1980 promises to be no exception. The question is being raised: Should American athletes go to Moscow if Soviet soldiers are going to Afghanistan?

A boycott would be effective foreign policy, it has been suggested, costing the Soviets "more money than they have ever seen at any one time," plus "prestige."

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Meanwhile, at home, "a boycott would be a fireball in the night, arousing Americans from the slumbers of detente," or so another partisan of Olympic no-show has written.

What next? The Soviets would deny the United States the Bolshoi? And then the United States would deny the Soviets Benny Goodman?One thing could lead to another until the boycott might be made absolute by passing a new version of SALT -- a Sports and Arts Limitation Treaty.

Whatever became of the argument that anym relationship between people of two countries was better than no relationship at all?

Certainly, in a world of nuclear warheads the boycott of a javelin-thrower or two must measure as the most imperceptible of wrist-slaps.

In fact, there are precedents for separating politics and the Olympic games. When, over 2,500 years ago, the heralds set forth from Olympia to invite the other city-states to participate in the games, they carried with them the proclamation of a truce. At first the truce lasted one month before and one month after the games. Then as athletes and spectators journeyed from further and further away, the truce was extended to two months.

Even the bitter war between Sparta and Athens at the end of the 5th century B.C. was not allowed to interfere with the Olympics. "In place of wars, endless games have been established," an early Olympic apologist declared, making the classic case -- perhaps a little ironically -- that the playing field is an alternative to the battle field.

Actually there is no record that an Olympic truce ever stopped a war more than temporarily. Nor were the Greeks so starry-eyed as to imagine it would. Not the Greeks! Indeed one of the debates considered whether or not Olympic games constituted apt training for soldiers.

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A student of Olympic history can find every possible political abuse exemplified. In the 4th century B.C., Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse, tried, unsuccessfully, to bribe the winner of a boxing event into calling himself a Syracusan. Alas, shortly afterwards Ephesus succeeded in "buying" a Cretan long-distance runner.

So much for the excesses of national pride, sometimes thought to be a modern Olympic vice.

Nor were states zealous for honors above paying their own athletes. Those who think Olympic competitors used to be simon-pure amateurs should refer to the second-century writer Galen, who observed: "Perhaps it is because of collecting larger sums of money than anyone else that athletes put on airs."

The early Olympic games even produced one political distortion not too evident in modern times. A champion like Theogenes of Thasos could get punched about for 22 years in the course of an unduly long career ("enduring" was the word used for Theogenes), and then go home and transfer his glory into high public office.

Alcibiades, the most famous corrupt politician of ancient Greece, began as a chariot-race winner in 416 B.C., running on the platform of "my exceptional performance in the Olympic games." Incidentally, he appears to have cheated even there, winning with somebody else's horses.

So the Olympic games have often been a less idealized occasion than we moderns assume -- marred by greed, provincialism, and a philosophy of win-at-any- cost. Just like all the rest of history.

Should we quit them now? If we answer yes, because we are making a moral judgment on other competitors, the Olympic games should have been dissolved centuries ago, according to the law of Alexander the Great. An outstanding horseman and a good sprinter, Alexander turned down his invitation with this fastidious explanation. "I will compete," he informed the organizers, "only if my opponents are kings." Here is what politics in sports can lead to.


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