What happened on the way to the 23rd Olympiad is the quintessential good news-bad news joke. The good news: With the Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Games this summer, the U.S. is sure to rake in many more medals. The bad news: Those medals will be forever devalued in the eyes of the world since the competitive field will be severely diminished. Let's look on the bright side. Between July 28 and August 12, the first summer Olympics to be held in the U.S. since L.A. hosted the 1932 Games still promise record-setting athletic feats, the introduction of entirely new competitive sports, an unparalleled arts festival and—for those who can't afford the airfare or L.A.'s skyrocketing summer rentals—some of the most spectacular TV sports coverage ever seen.
Some events that won't be strongly affected by the Communist walkout are diving, where Greg Louganis is expected to take two gold medals, men's track, where Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses should reign supreme, and others, such as field hockey, women's volleyball and synchronized swimming.
In other events, the pullout dramatically improves Americans' chances for medals. Women's track and field will be particularly affected by the pullout, since the world records in 14 of the 17 Olympic events are held by boycotting athletes. Evelyn Ashford, 27, the premier female sprinter in the U.S., already holds the world record in the 100-meter sprint and the U.S. record in the 200-meter, but her longtime East German foe, Marlies Gohr, defeated her in the 100-meter at last summer's World Championships in Helsinki. Ashford is now a virtual shoo-in for two gold medals.
At last summer's World Championships, Mary Decker won both the 1,500 and 3,000 meters, temporarily silencing critics who said the injury-prone runner couldn't handle the pushing and shoving of the Soviet middle-distance runners. But Decker still feared that this summer Soviet runners would try to box her in; now she'll probably stride unimpeded to the gold.
One of the most coveted tickets in L.A. would have been to the U.S. basketball team's game with the USSR. Coach Bobby Knight and his squad were looking to avenge the 1972 loss to the Soviets. As it stands, our main competition will come from Spain, Italy and Yugoslavia. And with 7'2" center Uliana Semenova and the rest of the Soviet team out of the picture, the U.S. women's basketball players are automatic favorites. Says USC sophomore Cheryl Miller, the 6'2" forward, "Now I'll always question who would have won."
Since there will be no new Nadia Comaneci, TV viewers will feast on such American gymnasts as Julianne McNamara, 18, and Mary Lou Retton, 16. On the men's side, Mitch Gaylord, who placed eighth at the World Championships last year, now has a valid hope for a medal. "We can't sit back and pout about the boycott," says Gaylord, 23. "This still is the Olympics."
When Isadora Duncan ripped off her tunic and bared her breasts to a scandalized Boston audience in 1922, history took note. Few realize, however, that the dancer also inspired a new sport, rhythmic gymnastics, which makes its Olympic debut this summer.
A frequent performer in Russia, Duncan often accented her "free dance" with wafting scarves. Enraptured Russian audiences emulated her, and eventually throughout Europe competitions were held in which young women danced and tumbled to music while throwing balls, hoops and clubs, or trailing ribbons. Less strenuous than traditional gymnastics, the sport will attract fans this summer because of its balletic beauty. Although the sport was developed in Eastern Europe, West Germany, Spain and possibly the U.S. will have a shot at a medal because of the boycott.
While rhythmic gymnastics celebrates traditional feminine grace, the women's marathon heralds a new development in track: the recognition that women can indeed endure the grueling 26 miles, 385 yards. The U.S.'s world record holder, Joan Benoit, finished ahead of Julie Brown and Julie Isphording at the Olympic Trials in Olympia, Wash, earlier this month. In L.A. the three qualifiers will face world champion Grete Waitz, 30, from Norway.
Another new sport is boardsailing on the West German-made "Windglider." (Sailing aboard the lighter, shorter American-made "Windsurfer" will be an exhibition sport only.) Men and women compete against one another in this event, which requires the athlete to grasp the wishbone-shaped boom and maneuver the Windglider around a three-buoy, triangular course. Although the sport was invented in 1967 by two California engineers, one an avid sailor, the other a fanatic surfer, look to the Western Europeans for medals.
America should shine in the exhibition sports: baseball and tennis. Although neither will be played for Olympic medals, the U.S. will field strong teams in both—Jimmy Arias and Andrea Jaeger courtside, with an assortment of college baseball players on the diamond. After all, it Is the national pastime.
ABC has been hyping it as "the biggest show in the history of television." It may have gotten a lot smaller in drama and excitement after the boycott, but it certainly hasn't gotten any shorter. Network execs vow that coverage will not be cut by a single minute. "We intend," declares ABC's President of News and Sports, Roone Arledge, "to go ahead as planned."
That's saying something, since plans call for 186 hours of coverage, virtually all live, more than the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Summer Games combined. That averages a mind-numbing 10-plus hours a day.
To feed its pictures to more than 140 countries around the world and an audience that previously had been expected to top 2.5 billion, ABC will field 3,500 employees, 660 miles of cable, 995 vehicles and four helicopters—winnowing down its broadcast from 1,300 hours of covered competition. Jim McKay will anchor prime time, while Kathleen Sullivan and Frank Gifford handle daytime chores. Despite his personal boycott of professional boxing, Howard Cosell will cover the Olympic slugfests.
The Games' ratings are likely to suffer because of the boycott, but ABC says its $225 million investment in these semi-Olympics won't. "We're protected," says Arledge, "by contract and insurance." Okay, Roone, we've got the beer on ice. Let's go.
Don't expect all the excitement to be confined to the track, pool and court. For 10 weeks this summer Los Angeles will stake its claim as nothing less than the artistic capital of the world—and that doesn't mean just TV and movies. Beginning June 1 the Olympic Arts Festival will feature 400—that's right, 400—performances by 76 different dance, music and theater groups from around the world. The cultural counterpart to the Games, the Festival will celebrate both the world-famous and the unknown. In the North American debut of England's Royal Opera, Placido Domingo will headline a new production of Puccini's Turandot, and Derek Jacobi will star in the Royal Shakespeare Company's Much Ado About Nothing. The Festival will also showcase the demon-drummers of Kodo. From Japan's isolated Sado Island, these musicians create a throbbing, hypnotic music by whacking 14-foot, 400-pound drums.
To discover such artists, the Festival's director, Robert Fitzpatrick, 44, traveled around the world for four years, logging some 300,000 miles. Head of the California Institute of the Arts, Fitzpatrick made sure that dance, music, drama and art would be equally represented. Dance troupes from Africa, Mexico, France and Korea will perform, as well as America's home-grown talent—Twyla Tharp, the Joffrey Ballet and the Dance Theatre of Harlem, among others. Music will range from the traditional folk tunes of China to jazzman Wynton Marsalis' resonant trumpet. The Louvre is sending a display of its Impressionist masterpieces, the first such exhibit west of the Mississippi. And appropriately, considering the Games' venue, there will be an exhibit called Automobile and Culture.
"The hardest thing for me," concedes Fitzpatrick, "was choosing. But it was great to be able to choose between good and very good."