Two Tribes, part three

Yet another objectively evil regime was hosting yet another Summer Olympics, and someone asked Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice about a boycott. She spoke out strongly against it.

Rice was speaking for untold millions in this cynical era. Long gone were the optimistic, selfless days of the 1980's.

No, really. We thought pop music would cure famine. We thought pop music did stop apartheid (okay, so it took a minute). We thought "The Day After" was gonna happen any minute for no reason, like so many "Left Behind" fans these days.

And at the end of the 80's? The Berlin Wall fell, Mandela was freed, and it seemed like the world was going to enter a glorious new era of freedom for everyone.

...well, almost everyone.

But in 1980, we still weren't sure if the Russians loved their children, too. The IOC gave the Olympics to Moscow in the spirit of detente, which ended up like giving Yasser Arafat the Nobel Peace Prize.

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Carter Administration's public response...public response....were things that, yeah, seemed pretty gentle.

Still, at the time, the boycott was supported well across bipartisan lines. The House resolution in favor passed 386-12, the Senate resolution 88-4. Sixty-two nations joined in, making it the largest single sporting boycott in history. (As opposed to holding a tournament, but boycotting one nation, like apartheid South Africa.)

While the Olympics were pretty much ruined - nearly as many nations boycotted as participated - the boycott by itself didn't liberate anyone. And the only weapons the United States would actually admit they were using - the boycott, a grain embargo, that sort of thing - did seem pretty useless compared to, say, a shoulder-mounted rocket that could shoot down helicopters, or something.

So you can see why athletes at the time questioned the boycott's effectiveness, and why Rice's point of view has become so popular. Better no gesture than an empty one.

Among the athletes deprived? The United States national soccer team, qualifying for their first important tournament since 1950. You might think the members of that team weren't thrilled about missing Moscow, and you'd be quite right.

"He" being Ty Keough. Was he right?

Well, let's go back and look.

Even qualifying for the Olympics was a triumph for the United States. They had to score an incredible victory over Mexico to qualify:

....oh.

...wait, how come the US Olympic team had some NASL players, like Ricky Davis and Julie Veee?

....oh.

But still, the US had to get through the rest of CONCACAF.

....oh.

Still...Costa Rica. They're not pushovers...hm? At this point, Costa Rica was still over a decade from qualifying for its first World Cup, had never qualified for the Olympics, and was in the middle of eight straight years of missing the CONCACAF Championships, the even more Mickey Mouse precursor of the Gold Cup?

....oh.

Anyway, that was the national team preparing to go to Moscow, before Jimmy Carter took it all away.

But by golly, the US was replaced by Cuba, and Cuba finished second in the group! The US could have done that!

Wow. Ty Keough was right. Jimmy Carter did dick them out of a possible medal round contention.

Hm? Oh, Cuba's group included Venezuela? And Venezuela replaced Argentina, who was also boycotting the tournament?

So presumably if the US attended in 1980, Argentina would have come along, too?

Hm, I wonder how that Argentina - US match would have gone.

No, you're right, I'm sure we would have been just fine. Argentina, the Soviet Union - no problem. That certainly wouldn't have been a -50 goal differential, no sir.

Well, didn't the hockey team shock the world a few months earlier? Why not the soccer team, as well? Sure, the Soviet Union might have been a tiny bit fired up for the US game, but hey, miracles can happen twice. Maybe it would have been a real-life version of "Rocky IV" with the Moscow crowd cheering "U-S-A! U-S-A!" and the home crowd cheering "N-A-S-L! N-A-S-L!" and we'd have won a couple of World Cups by now.

The problem is, well...we now know there was a lot more to the story of what was going on in Afghanistan. Rice was very wrong - the Olympic boycott was not, in fact, the only thing the United States could think of:

Admittedly, this is a quotation from a site celebrated neither for its academic rigor nor its non-partisanship, but in fairness, it's not like I picked a source that sits up all night thinking of nice things to say about Jimmy Carter.

The CIA operation, of course, aiding the mujahedeen. There is a school of thought among lefty circles that the CIA actually provoked the invasion - in 1996, Robert Gates wrote that the US had been providing non-military aid to the mujahedeen since July 1979 - six months before the invasion.

That was written in 1996 - in other words, before it stopped being particularly fashionable to take credit for current affairs in Afghanistan. If the CIA did successful provoke the Soviet Union into a debilitating war - well, let's just say that's a little bit more ruthless, far-sighted and calculating than the men of the Carter Administration are generally given credit for.

Although apparently, they were sorta hoping:

That was National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski in January 1980. Very soon after this interview, if not before, the Afghan insurgents would, in fact, receive billions in arms and aid.

Needless to say, all this was a fairly well-guarded secret. Well, not to the Russians, of course. But far from the Olympics boycott standing as an isolated, futile gesture, it's more properly seen as one front in a very multi-faceted effort against the Soviet Union.

Put more bluntly, the sports boycott was now a weapon of war.

A comparatively weak weapon, sure...unless revenue and prestige count in war, which, y'know.

In that context, competing in the Olympics becomes sort of farcical. Let's face it, you pretty much have to boycott someone you're paying to have killed. Don't you? If anyone had said "But what about Ty Keough and the US national team?", it went unrecorded by history.

Not to put to fine a point on it, but how many hostages did we want to give Brezhnev, anyway? We already had enough in Tehran. "What a fine looking bunch of young men and women. Shame if anything happened to them. Now, about those Stinger missiles you're handing out like bubble gum...."

While it wasn't as if arming the Afghan rebels was debated on the floor of Congress, the policies of both Carter and Reagan suggest that "let's keep the Russians dying in Afghanistan indefinitely" was a policy that enjoyed massive bipartisan, and would have enjoyed massive public, support. Since the Olympics had something to do with peace, well...exactly how many people do you want dying in the mountains before you have second thoughts about a friendly little race or two?

Whether you believe that the athletes were pawns in an ineffectual, symbolic protest, or whether you believe the athletes were pawns in the struggle for the future of the world - well, either way, they were pawns.

This was probably a big part of the reasons why athletes since then have recoiled at the thought of large-scale boycotts - it's a fairly humbling reminder of how easily sports can be manipulated.

It also hit the athletes right in the pocketbook...amateur status or no.

...yes, competing in a subjectively scored sport in Moscow in 1980 would have been very likely to lead to a gold medal. And recognition beyond gymnastics? Quick, what's Dominique Moceanu doing these days? For all I know, Kerri Strug is a neurosurgeon these days. Last I heard, Eric Heiden was a dentist, and he won something like five gold medals in Lake Placid that year.

But Collins was onto something. Money had already become a powerful force in international sports, and we had literally seen nothing yet. When organized superpower hardball politics took on the Olympics four years later, it was crushed.

If it's a feckless, ineffectual boycott you're looking for - well, try 1984.

Next chapter: two nations boycotted the 1936 Olympics. Thirteen boycotted the 1984 Olypmics. Therefore, Reagan was worse than Hitler.