The Walls Came Down - part four

It was morning in America. All of Orwell's predictions had come true, but the Kinks were having one of their occasional comebacks, so that was all right. It was beginning to look as if people were willing to pay for television programming. Los Angeles had two National Football League teams (depending on whether you feel Anaheim counts). No one in the world would have thought twice about accepting a ride on a space shuttle.

And as far as anyone could tell, the Cold War had a bright, bright future. Fear of nuclear holocaust permeated American thought - you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing "1999" or "It's a Mistake" or "99 Luftballons" or "Der Kommissar" or "World Destruction" or -

...really? "Der Kommissar" was about buying cocaine in Vienna? You're kidding. All these years I thought it was a dance version of "I Shall Be Released."

Okay, well, maybe there was SOME hedonism in the 80's. But there was an awful lot of political posturing, even by today's standards. So you pretty much had to be a walking vegetable if you couldn't get somebody to buy into your moral boycott, especially of a bloated supercapitalist pageant like the 1984 Olympics.

Well, the Russians may or may not have loved their children, but they sure couldn't organize a boycott. The General Secretary of the Russian Communist Party in 1984 was Konstantin Chernenko - the organizer of the Olympic Games in 1980. It showed the deadly seriousness with which the Russians took the propaganda importance of the Olympics. Chernenko's baby had been humiliated; undoubtedly the Russians would take revenge.

In retrospect, putting a robotic bureaucrat like Chernenko in charge of a sports tournament, let alone an entire country, showed that the Soviet Union was well on its way to becoming what it is today. But the fact that Russian leaders like Chernenko made George Herbert Walker Bush look like Huey Long was reason for fear, at the time not relief.

That inspirational leadership showed in the Communist-except-Romania-and-China boycott. Eighteen whole countries shunned Los Angeles that year - I wasn't a math major, but that seems like less than sixty-two. The fact that most of those countries contributed to long and detailed entries in annual Amnesty International reports enhanced, rather than diminished, the 1984 tournament's prestige. Ironically, Afghanistan was one of the boycotting nations - which pretty much answered whether the regime was a Soviet pawn or not.

The only athletic powers that skipped the Games were the USSR and East Germany...and they weren't missed. Perhaps a few events would have been more competitive, but the Olympic ideal wasn't exactly enhanced by the Democratic Republic of Jenapharm. (Although considering the state of the Olympics today, maybe East Germany was simply ahead of its time.) If there is an equivalent to Ty Keough on the Soviet Union 1984 Olymipc team, his disappointment has been lost to history.

But astonishing as it seems in retrospect, at the time Peter Ueberroth and the USOC were deeply worried. Unless this archived Sports Illustrated article is supposed to come with a laugh track:

That's the first line...and it's comical. Reich's article would itself prove that a Communist boycott had been a serious possibility for years, and when the news came, the reaction was "Well, yeah, we boycotted theirs."

More amazing is Ueberroth's panic at the announcement.

As we will see, Reich needn't have worried. The free enterprise system and the Olympics began a long and loving relationship in 1984.

So why did the American boycott work, and the Russian boycott fail?

Well, for one thing, the Russians neglected to provide a remotely plausible reason for their boycott, apart from spite.

No, seriously. That was the stated reason the Russians boycotted.

And the world, as one, said "duh."

Ueberroth's contempt helps explain why his political career never really took off after the tournament. It's a little hard in retrospect to see what was wrong with encouraging defections, or pointing out the considerable evils of the Soviet regime.

Although the "Coalition to Hurt Athletes" line shows how that perspective had gained traction since 1980. The anti-apartheid boycott was hurting South African athletes, but no one cared. A cynic might point out that concern for the right of athletes to compete increased in nearly direct proportion with the amount of money or propaganda that was at stake.

But there was a certain genius to that line - despite two dissenting voices known as "history" and "reality" - people once again believed that sports should be apolitical. Four years earlier, this point of view was a fig leaf to ignore Soviet misbehavior; in 1984, with the Soviets trying to spoil the party, it was possible to be both patriotic and Olympic. That proved a very easy combination to sell.

It's amazing that the Russians chose to make an issue of something so transparently inconsequential, when American misbehavior in, for instance, Latin America had reached satanic depths not seen since always.

One might correctly point out that Soviet violations of human rights were at least as horrible, but the idea that the Soviet Union would have been daunted by hypocrisy is a little difficult to believe.

Apparently, though, the Russians didn't even try to make the case that the United States was a lousy world citizen when it came to places like El Salvador and Nicaragua. Perhaps the Russians weren't even good at propaganda any more. But it's possible that they realized that attacking American policies that most closely resembled Soviet policies wasn't merely hypocritical, but irrelevant. The American government had nothing to do with the Olympics - Ueberroth never did get his help from the Reagan Administration.

The other reason the Soviet boycott failed was that Peter Ueberroth applied modern marketing methods to the Games, and it was a smashing success - unless you cared about amateurism, but really, who does? The World Cup had turned their tournament into a license to print money, but the Olympics had the American market.

Again, Sports Illustrated was slow to realize what that meant, as shown by this masterpiece of understatement:

The answers, of course, were yes, yes, stupid question - what, they were going to run slower or something?, and if we define the Olympic movement as having something to do with amateurism, it had been at death's door for decades.

Ueberroth had been paying close attention indeed to how the World Cup had been marketing itself:

You almost feel bad for Chernenko. Reagan wasn't his enemy - it was Horst Dassler and Patrick Nally's global sponsorship scheme. Chernenko lost his showdown in 1978. Even though he ran an Olympics, such as it was, he had no conception of what capitalism would mean for international sports. After all, what did sponsorships mean in the workers' paradise? The Eastern bloc had plenty to offer successful athletes - privileges, comfort, steroids, hormones - but the goal wasn't profit, but prestige. In the end, the Soviets had neither.

How successful were the 1984 Olympics? Well, the top three soccer crowds in American history were set in this tournament, all within three days of each other. Clearly, America had fallen in love with soccer, the sport of the 80's! Oh, wait.

No, the Olympic rings could have, and did, sell literally anything in the US that year - including soccer. The actual US Olympic team beat the hell out of Costa Rica (told you they were terrible back then), foreshadowed the 1990 World Cup with a 1-0 loss to Italy (some guy named Baresi scored the winning goal), before suffering a tie to mighty Egypt (who would themselves stink up the 1990 World Cup, too) that sent them, er, home.

It was Canada, of all teams, that overperformed. They qualified to the knockout phase, and lost to Brazil on penalties. The 80's were a glorious decade for Canadian soccer. Shame they forgot to score a goal two years later in Mexico. But it seemed nothing could save American soccer.

So who was it that set the American attendance record? France and Yugoslavia. Six figures packed the Rose Bowl to watch France and Yugoslavia play soccer, in Ronald Reagan's America. And that record will stand forever - or until the USSF schedules a Mexico friendly in Ann Arbor, and gives away tickets.

The towering success of the 1984 Olympics showed the future of the political boycott - i.e., dim. Previous boycotts had hurt those on the receiving end, and cost the boycotters almost nothing. With the kind of money that was pouring into international sports, that was no longer the case.

The successful boycotts and bans since then have been against the indefensible, the helpless, or the unpopular. It's unlikely we will see anything like the unanimous and inspiring worldwide campaign against apartheid South Africa ever again - but if Israel wants to make a go of it, then rock on, I guess.

But with, as John Lydon sang in 1986, the price so high, the gains so low - it's unlikely we'll see a significant boycott of a major event for the forseeable future. Thus, Condoleeza Rice shrugging off a boycott of China in 2008. Thus North Korea competing in the World Cup in 2010.

Which means that, despite the considerable noise over the recent World Cup votes, there will be no boycotts of Russia or Qatar - no matter how ugly things get in Chechnya, or how badly David Geffen would like to see the 2022 World Cup. If you have any doubt of this, re-read the Shin Guardian's interview of Sunil Gulati:

It probably doesn't do much good that soccer's apolitical pose is specious at best, because a knee-jerk defense of the status quo in all its forms is, whatever else one may call it, very very political.

On the bright side, it's unlikely that the United States will be on the receiving end of another boycott. Whether you feel American policy would justify one or not, there are millions of people who feel that it does. And agree or disagree with the various wars we've been fighting, you have to admit that had we been hosting something of importance the past few years, it might have been extremely awkward. (I could picture Putin boycotting us over Afghanistan, just for the sake of irony.)

However, there are still plenty of politics in soccer - it's just moved out of the offices and into the streets.

Chapter five of this series is being written as we speak - thankfully, not by me. Let's hope this part is more uplifting, or at least has fewer typos.

Soccer Fans Against The Machine isn't new, as old-school Barcelona fans can attest (hopefully ones who are sickened and appalled at the Qatar Foundation polluting their shirts, but that's another subject).

And it certainly doesn't mean that politically active soccer fans are necessarily a force for good - hopefully Satan built a new wing in Hell specifically for Arkan, to pick one example. It's disconcerting how easily dictators and criminals have used the game over the years.

...so, basically, that's what is wrong with Ruud Gullit coaching the dictator's team in Chechnya, and that's why the powers that be are unlikely to do anything about it. Somebody might, though - and it might be someone a lot like you.

....or it might be some genocidal fanatic who happens to like the same sport you do. One or the other.