On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, soon occupying the capital and toppling the nation’s leader. A few months later, a deeply divided United States Olympic Committee voted to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. How the one event led irrevocably to the other remains one of the more confounding intersections of sports and politics in American history.
In the midst of the Cold War, the outrage over the Soviet invasion seemed to demand some response, and the idea of a Western boycott of the Games (the first to be held in a communist nation) soon gained momentum. Among the most vociferous supporters of a boycott was the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist Red Smith, who wrote so passionately about it that his editors at the New York Times killed one of his pieces, a first in his then 35-year writing career.1
The decision to kill the column became news itself. “Ideologically, I agree with him,” Times managing editor Arthur Gelb told the Washington Post, “but journalistically we don’t agree that Red should be on a crusade.”
On January 20, 1980, President Carter announced that he would recommend American athletes boycott the Games in Moscow, unless the Soviet Union withdrew its troops from Afghanistan.2 When the deadline passed and Carter made his support official, the juxtaposition was stark — the Soviets had come to compete in the Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, even as the Americans were threatening to boycott the Summer Games in the USSR.3 Against that backdrop, the U.S. men’s hockey team’s “Miracle on Ice” upset of the Soviets on the way to a gold medal carried extra significance. While Carter had the considerable bully pulpit of the presidency, he left the decision up to the United States Olympic Committee. When the USOC chose to follow Carter’s recommendation, the biggest sports event of the summer suddenly didn’t have any Americans competing in it.
Carter had first hinted at the boycott in a press conference January 4. But he announced his intention to support it on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday morning, January 20, when it wouldn’t even be the biggest sports story of the day. Later that afternoon, the Steelers beat the Rams, 31-19, in Super Bowl XIV in Pasadena. On January 24, the U.S. House of Representatives backed Carter’s stance, 386-12, in a nonbinding resolution. A similar vote in the Senate wound up 88-4 in support of Carter’s position. The boycott wasn’t made official until the U.S. Olympic Committee voted in April.
Through 1992, both the Summer and Winter Games were held in the same quadrennial year. Starting in 1994, the Winter and Summer Games alternated in even-numbered years. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi mark the first time since 1980 that the Games will return to Russia.
NBC, which had scheduled two weeks of prime-time and late-night coverage, scrapped its plans. Hundreds of U.S. media outlets decided not to send reporters. And almost all of the reportedly 20,000 Americans who’d made plans to attend the Games canceled their trip. One yardstick to measure the boycott’s effect on Americans’ interest was the traveling party sponsored by Track & Field News, which had been coordinating groups attending the Olympics since 1952. Before Americans pulled out of the Games, the publication had booked a contingent of nearly 2,000 people for the Moscow journey. After the news? The group was reduced to 137.4
Ed Fox, Track & Field News’s publisher, says his records show that more than 20 in the party were denied entry, “with no explanations from the Russians, who were probably trying to punish Americans. If a visa application [was] not filled out exactly right, or was late — denied!” Tom Jordan, biographer of Steve Prefontaine and now the meet director of the Prefontaine Classic, was then the associate publisher of T&FN. He recalled that many of the requests for visas by members of the media — including all three of those requested by staffers at the magazine — were rejected out of hand. George Plimpton entered on a tourist visa.
That’s where George Plimpton5 comes in. Already celebrated for his own trips onto the fields of play as a participatory journalist, Plimpton joined the Track & Field News touring delegation on assignment from Time.6 As Time put it in the introduction to the first of Plimpton’s two weekly dispatches, “His role this time was not to play but to watch, to go to the Moscow Olympics as that rara avis, given the U.S. boycott, an American tourist at the Games.” Those short pieces7 gave some of the flavor of the Games. But it was Plimpton’s longer, more discursive (and in many ways, more Plimptonian) account of the unseen Olympics, which ran that fall in Harper’s, that provided the most vivid, lasting account of the curious event that was the XXII Olympiad.
Born in 1927, Plimpton died September 25, 2003.
Time’s managing editor, Ray Cave, had worked with Plimpton in the ’60s at Sports Illustrated.
From the August 4, 1980, and August 11, 1980, issues of Time.
By George Plimpton
“Tip-toe incognito,” whispered Mister Bumpus.
—The Travels of Dr. Doolittle
THOSE WHO HAVE been here before are surprised at the emptiness, really an eerie one, of the city. Some are reminded of Paris during the August fermature annuelle,8 and indeed for the four summer months there is an annual exodus from Moscow of a large percentage of the population … to dachas, to the resorts along the Black Sea, and the youngsters (their absence is the most noticeable) to the Pioneer9 camps. But this year more people are gone. To make room for the visitors to the Olympic Games and to keep the best face on the city many people have been asked not to come into Moscow at this time unless they have official business, and some, such as alcoholics and various undesirables, have simply been removed — swept not just under the carpet, but into dustbins, carried out and deposited elsewhere. On the bus today, a group of Californians were wondering how this deportation process might be carried out in Los Angeles in 1984, when the Olympic Games are scheduled to be held there. The junkies, it was suggested, should be relegated to Needles, California, the alcoholics to tent cities in the Napa Valley, the drifters to Palmdale, and the elderly ladies in tennis shoes to Tijuana. “In each case,” a Californian pointed out, “Los Angeles would benefit from their absence, and where they went would benefit from their presence.”
The widespread custom of shop-closings in France, and the accompanying exodus of much of the population to the beaches and resorts in the south. The annual event traces its roots back to the Popular Front’s victories in the 1936 election, and the subsequent new labor laws of the Matignon Agreements, which created collective bargaining and two weeks of paid vacation for French workers.
The Young Pioneer Organization of the Soviet Union was somewhat analogous to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and was for children ages 10 to 15.
Giving a city a face-lift is called “Potemkin-izing,”10 after Prince Grigori Potemkin, Catherine the Great’s shrewd adviser, not to mention her lover and, after he had fallen out of her amorous favor, the custodian of her male harem. To impress the empress on a trip through the newly conquered Crimea, Potemkin constructed a fake portable village, complete with a population of healthy-looking shepherds and shepherdesses, which he would set up along her travel route, and when she was resting for the night, he would pack up the village and hurry it along past her to be set up anew where she would pass it the next day — trusting, I suppose, that she would fail to notice that the shepherds and shepherdesses looked startlingly like the ones she had seen the day before.
Los Angeles would follow suit, to some degree, in 1984. An L.A. Times story from that summer noted, “Los Angeles police have added 30 horse-mounted officers downtown and stepped up their stopping and questioning of Skid Row homeless in an effort to clean up the city in time for the Olympics … Many of the homeless — most often drunks, the mentally ill or others down on their luck — have apparently relocated to other downtown areas to escape the police pressure.”
Potemkin-izing is not specifically a Russian trait: one thinks of the false fronts along the streets of the western cowpoke towns built to make the buildings look as if they had two or three stories. Christo,11 the Bulgarian-born artist who wraps buildings in canvas, once told me that his first job in his native country was to help with the painting of vast backdrops of fake vistas along the rail lines — a task that doubtless inspired some of the scenic fiddling of his latter massive projects in the West, such as wrapping part of the coast of Australia.
Among Plimpton’s cavalcade of eclectic friends, Christo in 1982 produced a limited-edition lithograph for The Paris Review in which he photographed the journal after it had undergone his trademark wrapping technique.
As this is my first visit to Moscow, I find it difficult to gauge how much Potemkin-izing has gone on. It would be safe to say, in any case, that those who are critical of the society would consider the cleaning-up process to be Potemkin-izing; others, more tolerant, might say, “Well, the old girl” — referring to Moscow — “certainly got herself a splendid facelift last month.”
I had been told by people before leaving for Moscow to watch myself — that because I had written in opposition to the U.S. boycott of the Olympic Games in a national magazine the Russian press would be around to see me, television cameras and all, and that whatever I said would be twisted to their purposes. Furthermore, because I have supported Amnesty International and have close friends who work actively for it, I would surely be followed, my luggage searched, and my hotel room bugged. This last, I was told by insiders, would be something of an advantage in that if I wanted my laundry back I should face all four walls of my room and to each in turn shout my discontent and “No starch, please.” The best way to nudge the laundry room is to get the KGB involved.
A sense of this affects everyone who comes to the Soviet Union — a pervading feeling that one is playing a real-life role in a spy drama. So paranoid does the average tourist become, and so substantial is the American ego, that it comes not only as a surprise, but something of a disappointment, when nothing happens. One of my friends with the track-and-field group, with which I am traveling, told me that he felt a tap on the shoulder yesterday getting off a bus. He turned to see a policeman and his heart sank abruptly into his shoes. “This is it,” he thought. The policeman bowed slightly and handed my friend a piece of paper that had dropped from his pocket. My friend was enormously relieved, of course, but afterward he told me there had been just the slightest twinge of disappointment that the official had not said, in excellent English, “Mr. Lane, will you come with us, please.”12
The Lane mentioned here is Lane Wallace, then 31 and a track-and-field buff, but also a writer for the Watsonville (California) Register-Pajaronian, who roomed with Plimpton in Moscow. Wallace says what he best remembers about the experience was trying to explain to the group’s Russian tour guides exactly what it was Plimpton did for a living.
It was in reaction to being ignored by the Soviet authorities that many stories, most of them second, even thirdhand, circulated in the hotel lobbies and at mealtimes, apparently to salve the feeling, What is wrong with me? Why hasn’t there been a sharp knock on the door at midnight?
The most common of these stories was that so-and-so had surprised a KGB agent in his or her hotel room rummaging through the luggage. Whistles of alarm from those listening, and nods of I told you so. But that was always as far as the story went — we never found out what happened then. What did the Soviet agent do? Did he leap for the window? It must have been awfully embarrassing for him. Why hadn’t he jumped for the armoire when he heard the key in the door? Or pretended to be repairing the rug? But no, the description was always of him with his hands in the suitcase, startled, looking up like a raccoon caught in the car light’s beam and the overturned garbage cans.13
Wallace recalled that a writer representing Runner’s World had his room searched by authorities.
Paranoia even crept into the performance of my official function in Moscow, which was to cover the games for Time magazine in the guise of a tourist. I was told to stay away from the Time-Life offices. “There’s a KGB man in the courtyard,” I was told over the phone. “Your cover may be blown if you turn up here. So you’re to meet your contact, a girl named B. J. Phillips, in Pushkin Park and pass your copy to her.”
“How do I recognize B. J. Phillips?” I asked. I felt like putting a handkerchief over the mouthpiece of the phone.
“It won’t be difficult,” I was told. “She’s got a broken leg. She’ll be wearing a cast and a supporting herself on two canes — one steel, one wood. She wears big aviator glasses.”
“Oh,” I said.
A while later, I called up to say that I wasn’t sure anyone could read my handwriting (I had been advised to leave my portable typewriter at home) and perhaps it would be best if I came in to the office to type up my copy before going out to Pushkin Park. I didn’t say this directly. I used a few hastily made-up code words to confuse anyone who happened to be listening in. Rather than copy I used the word poppy. “After it’s cultivated,” I whispered, “I’ll bring the poppy to Eugene Origin’s garden.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
The editor finally gave up the subterfuge and let me come in to type. It turned out that B. J. Phillips was in the next office, her leg propped up on a chair, working on her stories. I asked if it was all right to come around the corner and give her my copy rather than going out to Pushkin Park. The editor said it was fine with him as long as we turned out the lights so no one could see us through the window.
Sometimes, with the U.S. team not there, it was difficult to know for whom to root at the games. One tended to support those from the Western countries when they competed14 — Allan Wells, Daley Thompson, Sebastian Coe,15 and Steve Ovett of England16 (it was especially difficult when, in the case of the last two, both were in the same race), Peitro Mennea, the Italian sprinter, José Marajo of France, any Finn (they were the merriest people around town), and, from the socialist bloc, the Polish polevaulter, Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz, if for no other reason than it was seemly if a Pole won the pole vault. He did, too, hoisting himself up just a half-inch under nineteen feet for a world record.
Wallace says many Americans in the party — a high percentage of whom were serious track buffs — wound up rooting for foreign athletes who’d attended American colleges and universities, like Bert Cameron, who went to UTEP, and Donald Quarrie, who’d attended USC.
Coe, who won the gold in the 1,500 meters in both the 1980 and 1984 Summer Games, later served as the chairman of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, which successfully staged the 2012 Summer Games.
Although Great Britain formally boycotted the Games, it allowed its athletes to compete, and many did so, with a contingent of more than 100 attending. When a Brit earned a medal, the ceremony featured the Olympic flag and anthem, rather than the Union Jack and “God Save the Queen.”
I kept a small list of people at the other end of the competitive scale — those who seemed almost sublime in their ineptitudes. Byong Uk Il, for example, a Korean boxer, who got so frustrated with himself that he began kicking at this opponent. Or the two fighters, Ismael Moustalov and Ahmed Siad, from Bulgaria and Algeria respectively, who fought such a dull fight that a friend of mine turned to his companion to say, “You can go to sleep watching this,” and discovered that he was.
In the women’s gymnastics, both the entire Mongolian and North Korean teams made my list. The measure of their ability was somehow symbolized by the musical accompaniment to their floor exercises. Everyone else had picked large orchestral pieces, the flow of a hundred violins or the disco beat seeming to pick up the gymnast and whirl her across the vast expanse of matting. But when the Mongolian girl, dressed in robin’s egg blue, stood poised for her first cartwheeling run, we heard first the loud amplified click of a tape recorder being turned on, and then what sounded like perhaps a pair of ancient player pianos being played at the same time, but with different tunes, so that a cascade of arpeggios roared down in a confused jumble through which the gymnast hopped and cartwheeled and was tumbled over as if in a great draft of wind. Kang Myong Duk was my favorite. On the beam she moved from one end to the other like a boy crossing a log over a swift-moving trout stream. Susan Cheesebourough of England was another favorite. Orange suited, she began to fall off the beam during her routine, but, almost regaining her balance, she poised, one leg flung out grotesquely, for a long, appalling instant, long enough for someone to call out, “Hang on, old girl!” before she finally slipped off.
At track and field, heading my losers’ list was a contestant in the twenty kilometer walk — a gentleman from Laos with certainly the loveliest name of the 1980 Olympics, Thipsamy Chantaphone. The race had long been thought to be over. Suddenly, an hour and a half behind the twenty-fourth walker, who was assumed to have brought up the rear, Mr. Chantaphone appeared — whisking through the great doors at the east end of the Lenin Stadium onto the track for his last lap. When the huge crowd realized that the man hurrying along in that crazy strut of the distance walker was a contestant in a race long thought to be finished, they rose to their feet and began cheering Mr. Chantaphone. Pandemonium! Mr. Chantaphone was not in the least abashed. He began waving his arms; an enormous smile ignited his features. He stopped and bowed — thus increasing his time to an even more horrendous total. One had the sense of his carrying an imaginary sign above his head: I am Thipsamy Chantaphone, Walker of Walkers.17
Most modern Olympic guides spell the athlete’s name as Thipsamay Chanthaphone. He actually finished in 2:20:22, slightly more than a half-hour behind the 24th-place walker, and nearly a full hour behind Italian Maurizio Damilano’s Olympic record time of 1:23:35.5. Two other walkers did not finish, and seven were disqualified. According to Olympic sources, the day of the 20K walking race — July 24, 1980 — was Chanthaphone’s 19th birthday.
It was interesting how some of the poorer athletes measured up to the stress of the Olympics. Some gave up from the start. In the third heat of the 1500 meters, a Vietnamese named Quang Khai Le started out last, stayed comfortably there, and finished last by twenty-six seconds. On the other hand, Marzoug Mabruk, a Liberian, burst out to lead the pack in his heat, turning it on absolutely full blast for two and one-fourth laps, and then, of course, ran out of steam and was passed by everybody. But at least he had the satisfaction of telling the folks back in Monrovia that he had “set the pace” and shown his heels to the rest of them for awhile. Maybe he would go so far as to say his coach had run him at the wrong distance.
Pizzazz, that was the thing! A fighter name Wamba from a West African country came rushing out yesterday at the five-second warning bell and began fighting, so stirring up his opponent that he got himself knocked out almost immediately.18 He made my list … right up there with Thipsamy Chantaphone.
Anaclet Wamba fought for the Congo, losing to Australian Benny Pike. Despite the ignominious finish at the Games, Wamba turned pro and held the WBC Cruiserweight title for nearly four years, from 1991 to 1995.
But my two favorite losers remain those English yachtsmen at the Montreal games who were so disgusted at the turtlelike qualities of their Tempest-class yacht Gift ’Orse that they set fire to her and watched from a dinghy until she eventually sank. Of the two men, the crew member, merrily tanked up on booze, was especially critical, not only of the Gift ’Orse but also of his skipper; he accused him of lacking in style. “I told him his place as captain was with the ship but he refused to go down with her.”19
The yachtsmen were helmsman Alan Warren and crewman David Hunt. They’d won a silver medal at the 1972 Olympics with the Gift ’orse, but the same boat had been damaged in transit to Montreal for the ’76 Olympics. In that same race, American Dennis Conner, who would go on to four wins in the America’s Cup, was the helmsman for the bronze-medal winning American team.
A lot of stories about fires drifted around the hotel lobbies today. A man wearing a straw hat was reported to have self-immolated this morning in Red Square. It was such a fragmentary story that it would doubtless have been discounted if it had not been for that detail about the straw hat. A boater? Rather a jaunty one?
We also heard that in the spirit of the boycott the British had burned all their allotted tickets to the games. The boycott was actually thought up by the British — at least they were the ones who proposed the idea at a hastily convened meeting in Moscow at the news that the Russian troops had crossed the border into Afghanistan. I was surprised to hear at the American embassy that the purpose of the boycott had little to do with informing the Russian populace about the Afghanistan situation. The Russians are amply supplied with news from the West, if they wish to be, through the BBC and the Voice of America broadcasts, which have not been jammed since 1973, and of course word of mouth spreads very quickly news that might not appear in Pravda. Rather, the intent of the boycott was to indicate to Brezhnev and Co. how seriously the Western powers took the Soviet encroachment … a gesture to the top brass. This news increased my skepticism about the value of the boycott. Surely a high official would be more upset by the moves in the diplomatic and trade channels — such as the defection of the Romanians and North Koreans in the General Assembly voting over the Afghan issue, and the obvious disgust of the Third World at the Russian incursion. Besides, did leaders such as Brezhnev wring their hands over such steps as an athletic boycott? He is in the Crimea somewhere. He’s apparently a great soccer fan,20 but he has not been on hand for the games, save for the opening ceremonies where he stood and applauded at moments that pleased him, clapping his hands together slowly, as if his internal machinery had run down.
Secretary of State Henry Kissinger prepared a two-page memorandum for President Gerald Ford ahead of Ford’s arms-control summit with Brezhnev in Vladivostok in November 1974. “Brezhnev prides himself on being a sportsman,” Kissinger wrote. “He vows he will never give up hunting, and he remains an avid soccer fan, attending matches at Moscow stadiums.”
In fact, the whole Soviet political presence seems absent from the games. In a city awash with flags, the only Soviet banners I have seen fly from atop the Great Kremlin Palace and off the sterns of the vaporetti that ply the Moscow River.
The official box at Lenin Stadium, roofed, and with a long row of red-covered seats, has been empty since the opening ceremonies. That’s one thing the Soviet Hierarchy does not do — give its tickets away to secretaries and friends.
In the Hotel Ukraine,21 where I am staying, there has been a lot of lobby talk among the track-and-field people about cheating out at the games — Soviet judges giving their countrymen the edge even in such events that require measurements, such as the hammer, the shot put, and the discus. I would think it highly improbable, even lunatic, for a troika of judges and assistants (three of these officials converge where the thrown object first dents the grass, scampering to the spot like boys rushing for a tossed coin) to jockey the measuring sticks around, especially under the gaze of 103,000 spectators, many of whom are equipped with high-powered binoculars. But the rumors persist. The most curious is that the great runway doors at the west end of the stadium have been swung open to allow the wind funneling through to aid the javelin tosses of the Russians, and that when a Pole or an East German steps up for his toss, the tall, hangarlike portals are swung shut to cut the windstream off. Nonsense, of course, unless the wind were literally roaring through, blowing the hair straight forward off the brows of the javelin throwers looking downfield. That sort of a wind might carry a javelin with it, but we haven’t had anything like that at all: the high clouds hang almost motionless in the pink evening sky. Besides, javelin throwers are unnerved by a following wind, which tends to shove the tail of the javelin down so that it hits the ground first, thus disqualifying the toss.
The Hotel Ukraina opened on May 25, 1957, one of the towering “Seven Sisters” buildings that Stalin ordered built in Moscow in the middle of the 20th century.
Flimflamming has also been reported in the triple-jump (once called less decorously, if more accurately, “the hop-skip-and-jump”). Here, an Australian named Ian Campbell and a Brazilian named Joao de Oliveira were called for fouls on nine of their twelve jumps, which made it easier for the Russians to place first and second.22
You can find one of Campbell’s disputed jumps, which clearly would have been an Olympic record, on YouTube. The official cited a relatively obscure rule prohibiting scraping his foot on the takeoff. Last year, Campbell explained to The Guardian, “If you scrape, the chances of you completing the jump correctly are low. The chances of you not hearing it or feeling it are impossible. The chances of you doing all those things and breaking the Olympic record are absolutely impossible.”
I had particularly noticed the Brazilian, Oliveira. After his last try, in what seemed to me a most sportsmanlike gesture, he leapt out of the landing pit and began shaking hands with everyone in sight — the pit sweepers, the man who sits in a small chair and leans forward to prepare the takeoff board after the previous jumper had marked it, the judges up the line — and from the stands the applause began to flow down in appreciation. The man next to me said, “Well, so much for how much these folk know about track. Don’t they realize the Brazilian is being ironic? He’s knocking them. He’s showing everyone how awful he thinks the judging has been.”
I had been applauding along with everyone else. I stopped.
“How do you know?” I asked. “I mean, why doesn’t he punch them in the snoot if he feels that way about it?”
“Oh no,” the man replied. “It’s all a question of symbolic gesture. You’ve got to know how to read these things.”
Don Rollen,23 the ubiquitous fan who wears a vertically-striped painted beehive hairdo and invariably sits in the stands where the TV cameras can pick him out — “Rock ’n’ Rollin” he calls himself — was picked up next to the press center by the Soviet police for “looking odd” (as an official at the American embassy described the incident to me) and then released. “He does look odd,” someone said to me, hearing the news. “With that hairdo of his he looks like St. Basil’s Cathedral on the move.”
The man’s real name was Rollen Stewart; he became infamous on American television in the ’70s and ’80s not only for his rainbow-colored wig, but also the large “JOHN 3:16” placards he brought to numerous sporting events.
The Hotel Ukraine is one of the seven skyscrapers built around Moscow in the 1950s. The style is Russian art deco, not unlike — unless my memory flags — the compromise architectural monstrosity that gets blown up in the climactic finale of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. The place is, nonetheless, an oasis to our group — a home base to which everyone repairs after the games for meals, however unpalatable the latter turn out to be. One of my tablemates, looking down at a small section of fish waiting for him on his plate, and debating whether to tuck his napkin under his chin before knuckling down to it, remarked on what a shame it was that the French had only spent three months in Moscow in 1812. “A few months more, and a bit of the French cuisine might have rubbed off,” he said mournfully.
One of the more novel aspects of dining at the Ukraine was that the majordomo of the dining room, a stout figure in a light grey suit, felt it was uncompanionable (and possibly a bad, bourgeois habit) to wish to eat by oneself. If I came into the dining room alone, he would imperiously motion me to an empty seat at a table already occupied — very much as if he were a social director on a cruise ship trying to get his single passengers to mix. But it was difficult if my tablemates turned out to come from Nepal with no common language to share. One lunch he sat me next to a poultry farmer from east Texas who over coffee told me that in his business chicks are pumped up to the size of broilers in only six weeks. “We don’t let them chicks sleep,” he told me. “We jes’ keep the lights on and let ’em eat.” The thought of those gorging birds stayed with me, disturbingly, through an afternoon of watching weight lifting, when the entrance of every weight lifter through the small stage door off to one side of the stage was accompanied by a mental image of a vast, slow-stepping, big-thighed emu.
Hailing a taxi, the usual procedure if it stops and you’re alone is to get in and ride, not in the back seat, but up front with the driver — a pleasant enough practice that evokes the egalitarian spirit. The trouble is that such proximity suggests one should strike up a conversation with the driver. It’s rude — or at least it feels rude — to sit next to someone and stare stolidly out the window. It’s like hunching up a chair to a restaurant table where someone is seated alone and then not saying anything. So I try. It has struck me that I know many more Russian proper names than I do words, and how difficult and limiting it is to carry on a dialogue by mentioning in turn Tolstoi, Chekov, Tchaikovsky, Maiokovski, Pushkin (“Ah, Pushkin!”), Beria (thrust of the thumb down), Khrushchev (sideways motion of the hand to denote ambivalence), Stalin (thumbs down), Olga Korbut (thumbs up), and so forth. It’s exhausting, and I only did it once; after that, I sat in the back. The driver did not seem to mind. At least I could detect no sign of hurt feelings.
Nadia Comaneci is a woman now — long, ropy legs like a racehorse’s, a bosom! — and she towers over the strange, Munchkinlike gamines who dominate that peculiar sport like a light standard. In the troughlike walkways around the performing areas, the tiny gymnasts keep loose with slow, lovely cartwheels (they are upside down much of the time) and with a myriad of relaxing exercises, one of which is a trembling of the leg muscles as if trying to shake a bug off a toe. Nadia stands apart.24 She seems like a teenager at a lower-school recess. She doesn’t submit herself as much to the exercises; with her, the preparation seems more mental. What could be running through her mind? Her primary rival (who eventually dethroned her as overall champion)25 is Yelena Davidova, a Russian, who is exactly Nadia’s age (eighteen), but who by some genetic chance has not been assaulted by womanhood: she is still as flat-chested as a boy; the sheen on her legs is smooth; she is elfin — seventy-five pounds. Her floor routine is sexy, with little, exquisite bottom-shake movements that a purist friend of mine haughtily referred to as “kiddieporn.” True, if Nadia tried such things, it would seem undignified. But I found Davidova’s routine whimsical and charming. “Oh, Christ,” a purist friend said in disgust.
A year after the Olympics, while on a tour of the United States, Comaneci’s coaches, Bela and Marta Karolyi, defected. After that, Comaneci’s movements were even more closely followed (she attended the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, but traveled under heavy security throughout). She defected in the fall of 1989, just weeks before the Romanian revolution. In 1996, she married American gymnast Bart Conner.
Although Comaneci settled for silver in the all-around competition, she did win individual golds for the balance beam and floor exercises.
In Gorky Park I stopped at a bowling alley housed in a barrage-balloonlike bubble at the edge of the wide river balustrade. The place, without air conditioning, was an inferno of heat. A dozen pinball machines along the wall were in operation. I doubt the Russians make such things, but at least they have adapted foreign models for home-country use, to judge from the flashing Cyrillic lettering. Some penny-arcade war machines were also busy — the familiar American sound of the thump and whine of miniature electronic holocausts. I looked over the shoulder of a player and saw a torpedo wake heading for a red tramp steamer ploughing along doughtily against a painted horizon.
Russian bowling, though, has a peculiarly unique style. Apparently the bowler plays by the hour rather than by the number of games bowled, so that the criterion of performance rests on the number of throws rather than any emphasis on scoring. Bowling balls were got rid of down the dilapidated, pocked alleys as if they were fused in some way, and about to go off; they were flung with abandon, often into the gutter, and on occasion they smacked into the guardrail of the Brunswick pin-setting apparatus while the tenpins were still being settled into place — the shattering crash of such impacts rising above the general din: the guardrail would lift as if in alarmed haste above the pins, which would teeter there for just an instant before a bowling ball, often with another immediately on its tail, would smack into them. I only saw one scorecard being kept along the row of alleys — a man scribbling full-bent to keep up with the frantic activities of the players in front of him.
Speed was also a requirement of the ball’s delivery. I have never seen bowling balls hurled … like cannonballs they bounced a third of the way up the alley. The preferred method of throwing them was with a two-fingered grip, as if either someone had figured out that the care required to insert the third finger was too time-consuming, or perhaps that the three-fingered grip was too dangerous: one might not be able to extricate one’s hand at the end of the follow-through and thus be carried along up the alley behind the ball like a human streamer.
I left the alley after fifteen minutes or so. Outside, even with the weekend crowds thick and festive, and the calliope sounds from the merry-go-rounds and ferris wheels, and the calls of the children from the boat ponds, my ears were soothed by the comparative quiet.
T-shirts everywhere — international slogans, ad copy, funnies, poems, epithets, epigrams, pronouncements, assertions, admissions, paintings — carried around on tens of thousands of walking billboards. A lot of Mickey Mouse sweat shirts. The most arresting message I saw was an American T-shirt on the back of a pleasant-enough looking chap — I wondered vaguely if he could speak English and knew that what he was brandishing read as follows:
JOIN THE ARMY
TRAVEL TO EXOTIC LANDS
MEET UNUSUAL PEOPLE
AND KILL THEM26
A variation of the slogan was popularized in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick film Full Metal Jacket (as recited by Private Joker), which was based on Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel The Short-Timers.
The blue jean is the truly coveted item from the Western world. But the Russian youth are very particular about their blue jeans. They turn up their noses at the Hong Kong-made models, which are the fancy brands preferred in the United States — the Calvin Klein, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sassoon brand names with the tight behinds and the stitched back pockets — and instead the Russian teenagers opt for American-made Levis, Texas Wranglers, and Sharpshooter models. The jeans are worn beltless; they don’t even rip off the size identification labels. There is a brisk black market in blue jeans. In our group are three young brothers from Michigan who were approached just off Red Square by their Russian counterparts, young men who were interested in buying the trio’s blue jeans right off their bodies. Only one of the Americans was wearing underwear, apparently, so he went around a corner and, divesting himself of his blue jeans, got back to the hotel wearing a pair of blue boxer shorts, eighty rubles (over a hundred dollars) richer. He had taken a brave enough entrepreneurial risk, though not as brave as his brothers’ would have been had they given up their jeans.
The light switches in my hotel room, and in every room I have been in so far in Moscow, are placed six feet up on the wall. How do small children, much less midgets and gnomelike men, turn on the lights in the evening? Do they wrestle chairs around and stand on them? Paintings are invariably hung up near the ceiling. Such interiors, it occurred to me, are very suitable for Peter the Great, who was almost seven feet tall; when he strode around St. Petersburg his courtiers had to run alongside full tilt to hear what he had to say to them. Yesterday I saw an odd wooden statue of Peter in Leningrad’s Hermitage that was fashioned just after his death and is supposedly an exact replica — a body mask rather than one of the face. He is seated in a chair wearing blue-gray court clothes, the tunic very dusty; it looks as if, were it smacked smartly, dust would emerge in a large cloud. His hands and feet are tiny, absurdly out of proportion to the body. His head is as round as a soccer ball, with a small black moustache tacked on at a curious angle. His hair, which is coal black, is reported to be his own. The countenance is quite foolish. The replica works; that is to say it can be pushed around like a wooden artist’s model in a figure-drawing class. I wish the curators of the Hermitage had him standing upright rather than slouched in a chair looking like a man who feels he is on the verge of suffering a severe gas pain. It would be interesting to have a correspondence with the authorities in the museum on this matter: “Dear Sirs …” The fact is I wish I had not seen him at all. Once, his enormous empty boots were on display at an exhibition I saw in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and the imaginary portrait generated in my mind from seeing them is certainly one I prefer to what I saw in the Hermitage.
The Moscow subway, as everyone knows, is the eighth wonder of the world. However much one has heard about the opulence of the stations with their marble, their statuary, and their chandeliers, and the speed and cleanliness of the trains, one is unprepared. I am especially impressed with the escalators, which with alarming speed seem to disappear at a sharp decline down to the point of infinity — such a long and deep descent that at lunch today a professor from Chicago pointed out that only an atheist culture could venture so close to the infernal regions.
I went to see Lenin in his mausoleum this morning — “his Nibs”27 as our contingent refers to him. Foreigners are able to get to the head of the long line and with special guides sweep in without delay, but I thought it would be more interesting to go to the end of the line, which, when I joined it, stretched down Red Square and around a corner into a leafy park under the western wall of the Kremlin. We shuffled slowly by the great terrace that contains the flame of the Unknown Soldier. Fresh flowers lie on the stone. We watched a raven move with big hops among the flowers and then shy away abruptly from the heat of the flame. What is it that attracts the raven to national monuments, especially those with murky pasts, such as the Tower of London and the Kremlin? Behind me in the line were two boxers from Nigeria. I fell back and got into conversation with them. Their boxing coach four years ago had been Archie Moore, the former light-heavyweight champion of the world and an old friend. We reminisced about him as we moved through the park. Moore’s team had never gone to the Olympics in Montreal. Most of the Third World countries boycotted the 1976 games because of their collective annoyance with New Zealand for having hosted a rugby team from South Africa — a sensitivity that certainly showed the degree of their feeling about isolating the latter country, but also seemed a somewhat farfetched and arbitrary reaction. The Nigerians volunteered as much. When I asked their opinion of the 1976 boycott, one of them threw his hands apart in a gesture of futility. “Poof!” he said. He made much the same kind of sound when I asked him about the U.S. boycott. “Too bad. Too bad,” his friend said.
Via the Historical Dictionary of American Slang: “an important or self-important person … usual construction with his, her, or your (royal).”
We moved out of the shadows of the park and up into the sunlight and vastness of Red Square. Conversations in the column began to die away. We were directed into double lines — security men, some in plainclothes, every dozen paces or so, peered closely at us. A small, untidy man in front of me had a bulge in his coat pocket, which turned out to be a piece of dried fish wrapped carefully in an old newspaper. His lunch. He unwrapped it three times for the security people as we moved along. Now there was no sound but the shuffling of feet; one was subdued as much by the ministrations of the security people as by the grim facade of the tomb with its absurdly small door, room for two of us at a time to enter.
Once inside, the chill of the mausoleum increased markedly as our column turned sharply to the left and filed down a marble stairway — it was almost palpable, like stepping into a pool of deep shadow. Two turns to the right, and ahead I saw an odd white object that I suddenly realized was Lenin’s right ear, shining, remarkably delineated compared to most ears, I remember thinking fleetingly as we turned into the catafalque, and I saw the high forehead, the pale face, the faint reddish beard, the hands luminous above the black of either a coverlet or a black suit … the chiaroscuro effect of the lighting and the dispatch with which we were being hastened around the foot of the glass-enclosed bier made it difficult to tell. I had no sense of his feet sticking up at the foot of the bier — protuberances that always add a small touch of absurdity to the mien of a human lying on his back.
Then in front of me, just as we made the turn to pass down the left side of the catafalque, a man suddenly started sobbing. Almost instantaneously, a soldier moved out of the shadows. He leaned forward, within inches of the man’s face, and with a finger to his lips he hissed, “Sssh!”… explosively loud in that enclosed gloom — the sharp sound of a nanny admonishing a child — and the man’s sob stopped in mid-flight, like a hiccup.
The sunlight was refreshing once we got outside. Our trip in the mausoleum had lasted less than a minute. The Nigerians and I walked slowly along the foot of the Kremlin wall looking at the names of those interred there. We passed a bust of Stalin. We were still subdued. We kept thinking of what we had seen in the mausoleum. One of the Nigerians asked me if Lenin had had any children. I said that he had been married but — as I remembered it — he felt that his child was the Revolution. Anything else would have been a distraction.
“That’s too bad,” the Nigerian boxer said. “His great-grandchildren could drop in back there and see just how he looked.”
One of our tourist group was a stage-lighting technician from Minnesota. He told me he was curious to see how his fellow artists had (as he put it) “lit Lenin,” and he went to Red Square specifically to check up on them. He also had tickets to the Bolshoi Theater;28 he had hoped to get backstage to look at the lighting panels and the rest of the equipment but he had not been able to manage it.
Even the famed Bolshoi was in the spirit of the Games, putting the Olympic mascot bear “Misha” on its program cover.
“Well, how did you think they lit Lenin?” I asked when I saw him.
He said he was much more impressed with the lighting in the mausoleum than what he had seen at the Bolshoi. “It’s a hard theater, that place, because you can’t do your lighting from the front. So they use follow-spots; the actors and dancers move around in pools of light. Some people like that, but I don’t: it’s too artificial. I was surprised how little subtlety there was — just blue, white, red, and bright yellow. Too much white, I thought, but then who am I to criticize? It’s the Bolshoi.”
“What about Lenin?”
“Oh, that’s just great, how they lit him. Really great,” he said. “A spot on his face, and one for each hand … against the black background … a little rose gel used, I’d guess … a smokey pink to give the effect of life … oh very well done. I wanted to crouch down and look up to see the spots and how they’d done it, but it’s not the sort of place you can stop to do that sort of thing, is it?”
“No, sir,” I said.
B. J. Phillips told me today that a Russian friend of hers had reported that the stones or markers over the bodies of Russian soldiers killed in Afghanistan bear the inscription “Died on International Duty” followed by the dates. The Russian was contemptuous of the phrase. He said, “For those who died in the Great Patriotic War the inscription was always ‘For the Motherland.’ That meant something. But this new inscription — it is meaningless. Two of my friends from school are buried under it.” He had spat furiously at the grass.
In a Marxist society a considerable onus is put on being a servant or a waiter or anyone in a servile position. In Russia everyone wants to be an engineer. It takes forever to eat in a Moscow restaurant because whoever is supposed to appear at the table is back there in the kitchen pouting and banging the pots around, wondering what went wrong.29 That is why one can wait for an hour in a restaurant, often falling asleep (the best position, I am told, is with the head on the table edge rather than lolling back in the chair, which is not as steady, and can result in toppling off with a crash) waiting for the aggrieved waiter to show up with a temper just barely under control. It does not help matters that no one can be fired.
Jordan questioned whether it was worth the wait. He remembered soft-baked eggs for breakfast, along with oatmeal (“something a lot like Swiss cheese”), and calf’s tongue as the breakfast meat, each and every morning. How did the calf’s tongue taste? “As you would imagine,” he says. “Pretty bland, very chewy.”
These thoughts crossed my mind as I sat in the stands of Lenin Stadium watching the games, because obviously in athletic events there are many serviles — people who have to sweep the broad-jump pit, mop up the sweat if a basketball player tumbles to the court, carry out the weights for the weight lifters to heft, tote back the shot put for the shot-putters to put, and so forth.
I watched carefully, and noticed that the Soviet authorities have done their imaginative best to keep the serviles happy by making their work as mechanically oriented as possible. For example, when the javelins, discuses, and hammers land out at the far end of the pie-shaped target area, they are picked up by the serviles and carried off just a short distance to the side where the objects are attached with clips to a motorized cable contraption, which transports them back to the throwing area where another servile unhooks them and puts them in the proper racks. No one is embarrassed by having to walk a long distance carrying a ball with a chain on it. As for the shot, which doesn’t go as far as the other missiles, it is picked up and carried a few yards by the servile and settled into a long inclined trough, down which it rolls like a mammoth pinball, not propelled hard enough, returning back down the starting trough to the plunger.
I went to the weight-lifting events wondering if the great barbells were somehow going to be manipulated and shifted about by forklift trucks operated by men with engineering degrees. But no. To my surprise, the hefting is still done manually — by men wearing smart jumpsuits with a green arrow motif down the sleeves, often three of them at a time straining at the great weights. “Hernias,” we thought might be a good name for these specialists.
One wonders, in fact, if the Russians have not found exalted descriptives for those who perform menial tasks to take the sting out of what they do. For example, might not those who labor at the jumping pits in track and field, sweeping them smooth after a broadjumper has landed, be referred to as “earth restabilizers,” or perhaps “sand agronomists”?
Yesterday evening I saw a man jump higher over a bar than anyone in history — seven feet, eight and three-quarters inches, an almost obscene height (I can just barely reach up that high). The man was an East German, Gerd Wessig, and when he had done it, he lay on his back on the blue, square mattress, itself about four feet thick so that jumpers don’t damage themselves on the way down from that prodigious height, and with his arms and legs akimbo, just as he had landed, he lay looking up into the pale evening sky for almost a minute, exulting, and letting the roar from the crowd wash over him. What a remarkable moment for him — to have done a simple act better than anyone else in the world! Above him, the bar, which had not even trembled as he had gone over it, must have seemed as solidly fixed as a tree branch.30
When asked if he considered Plimpton to be a track-and-field buff or merely a casual fan, Wallace said he was “somewhere in between.” “I think he had this fascination with it,” Wallace says, “but he probably also had the same fascination with baseball, which he knew a lot about.”
We hear from travelers and tourists coming in from the West that in the press little play is being given to the games and such feats as Wessig’s.31 There is much more coverage about the squabbling over the officiating, the alleged cheating, the food-throwing episodes in the Olympic Village disco, the lack of top-flight (i.e. U.S.) competition … almost as if the free-world press felt obliged to downgrade the Moscow show as much as possible.32 Only three minutes of the games are available daily to the networks in the States. Some newspaper publishers are refusing to publish any accounts of the Olympics, making the games a nonevent and its participants nonpeople in the best tradition (if they thought about it) of the Soviet practice of manipulating history.
In addition to the reduced Olympic coverage in the U.S. and other Western countries, there was also virtually no news from the West filtering into Moscow that fortnight. “The only news we heard over there from the Western world,” Wallace says, “was that Peter Sellers had died.”
Others reached similar conclusions. “From the Soviet viewpoint, so often radically different from that of carping outsiders, this first Olympics ever held on Communist soil has got to be reckoned a smashing success,” wrote E.J. Kahn in the August 18, 1980, issue of The New Yorker. “Nobody, a far as I know, was shot. That the XXII Olympiad has also been perhaps the most joyless one in recent history would no doubt be classified by its proprietors as irrelevant nit-picking — or, as the Russians prefer to call it, flea-chasing.”
Very discouraging, this, and it made me remember Ralph Ellison inveighing against the side effects of the boycott in the civil rights struggle in the 1960s. When it was suggested that industrial companies with discriminatory practices should be publicly listed and their products boycotted in protest, Ellison argued persuasively that too many people who were not responsible would be affected and caused anguish and hardship.
Certainly one thing to be said about the boycott was that it made everyone feel punk and frustrated. It hadn’t changed anything. It demeaned without effect. It didn’t make anyone feel righteous or smug, unless they were prigs and had forgotten about Vietnam. It created division and confusion. This morning I had breakfast with a girl who was worried about what people would say back in the United States because she had come to Moscow to see the games. “Do you think they’ll say I’m a traitor?” she asked.33
The concern was not unfounded. One of the members of the tour, an assistant track coach at Indiana University, told Jordan he’d received criticism for being “unpatriotic.” After Jordan returned home — he was living in Redwood City, California, at the time — he received a call from another Tom Jordan in the area, who said he’d gotten some harassing phone calls for attending the Olympics from people mistaking him for his namesake.
I watched her remove the top of her egg. “It’s going to be all right this morning,” she said. “Yesterday, it was a one-minute egg.”
“Is that what they’re saying?” I asked.
“That you’re going to be called a traitor.”
“Everybody in our tourist group is talking about it. The Russian salesgirls in the Gum department store said to Pat — you know Pat — how sorry they were that President Carter wasn’t going to let the tourists who came to the Olympics back into the United States. Where was she going to go, they wondered.”
“We can all go and live in Tashkent,” I said.
“Gorky’s more likely,” the girl said. “The Forbidden City — that’s what the Intourist guide calls the place. I’m depressed. If it weren’t for how nicely they’ve done this egg this morning, I’d cry.”
By the time Plimpton’s story ran, Carter’s gambit was being widely viewed as a diplomatic failure (it would be nearly a decade before the Soviets left Afghanistan). In practical terms, the lack of American involvement meant the 1980 Summer Olympics played as mostly a rumor in the United States. Without American stars like Edwin Moses, Mary Decker, and Craig Beardsley, the show didn’t go on, at least not in the United States. NBC had paid $87 million for the rights to the Games, but showed only a few highlights on Today.
When Plimpton returned from Moscow, he wanted to tell more of his experiences, and pitched the essay to his friend, Lewis Lapham, then early in the first of two stints as the editor of Harper’s. Lapham has few specific recollections of this story, but describes the typical process of editing Plimpton as being very simple. Plimpton would bicycle from his apartment on 72nd Street down near the Harper’s offices, on Park Avenue between 32nd and 33rd streets. “He usually dropped it off himself,” Lapham says. “Or we would meet for lunch someplace, and he would slide it across the table in a brown envelope.”34
“Very few writers I dealt with, their copy came in absolutely perfect,” Lapham said. “Updike was really the only one I remember, where there wasn’t anything to do with [editing] his writing. But George came close.”
Plimpton remained fascinated by the Olympics. He returned to the ’84 Summer Games in Los Angeles, where he met his second wife, Sarah.35 In 1996, he spent a day at the Olympic Games in Atlanta with President Clinton, and interviewed Clinton aboard Air Force One. Plimpton’s traveling companions, Wallace and Jordan, returned to Moscow this past August for the 2013 IAAF World Championships, to find it transformed. “Completely different city,” says Jordan. “Much more like Helsinki or even Berlin than the Moscow we visited in 1980.”
Sarah was working for one of the corporate sponsors for the 1984 Games. “The first time I met him, I walked into his hotel room at the Beverly Wilshire and he was stretched out on his bed in his undershorts, papers spread all around him,” Sarah recalled. “I mean, how many stories about George begin like that, with George appearing in his boxers?”
But Moscow in 1980 remains lost in a void, a missed opportunity, and one of the last major international sports events that went almost completely unseen in the United States. The veteran NBC announcer Charlie Jones, expressing the disappointment he felt for the athletes from boycotting countries, his colleagues, and himself, summed it up in 1988. “It’s history and you can’t change it,” he said. “All you can do is cry in the dark.”
Michael MacCambridge (@MacCambridge) is the author of America’s Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation and Lamar Hunt: A Life in Sports.