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Hoping the boycott bomb doesn't explode 

To anyone who remembers the spring of 1980, the events and emotions surrounding the ongoing Olympic torch relay have to bring fresh nightmares.

It's making me shudder, having simply been a spectator watching and writing about what happened 28 years ago last week.

The memory, like so many traumatic moments in life, remains vivid.

Colorado Springs became the epicenter on April 12, 1980, for a sad story that reverberated across America and the world. That fateful weekend at the Antlers Hotel, leaders of the U.S. Olympic Committee met to make the most painful decision imaginable.

President Jimmy Carter had ordered the USOC to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, because of the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan.

That military action, though deplorable, wasn't as well-reported in that era, long before international news became the nonstop, cable-driven, 24-hour machine of today. Americans knew the Soviets were in Afghanistan, but it was too far away to command daily headlines, constant major-media coverage or global outrage. That is, until Carter decided to use the Olympics as a political tool.

That weekend, then-Vice President Walter Mondale flew in to address the group, pulling out some powerful rhetoric that sounds so ironic now: "History holds its breath for what is at stake is no less than the future security of the civilized world. If one nation can be subjugated by Soviet aggression, is any sovereign nation truly safe from that fate? ... If the Soviet lunge toward the most strategic oil-rich spot on earth fails to unite us, what will?"

After that speech, the USOC's House of Delegates bitterly accepted the president's order, voting to withdraw from the Moscow Games. But the vote was far from unanimous, and some feared for the USOC's future. All who were part of that weekend knew, beyond doubt, they would never forget or feel any better about what they had done. And they despised the fact that the White House had forced them, as the USOC, to stab the athletes in the heart.

All these years later, the script seems eerily and ominously familiar, in too many ways. This time, China is the host country, and many around the world have been reacting negatively ever since the International Olympic Committee awarded these Olympics to Beijing in 2001. China's human-rights abuses are well-known and much better chronicled in 2008. We also have another embattled president, albeit Republican, trying to salvage the end of a troubled term in office.

We also now have the Olympic torch relay, which has evolved into a global monstrosity. It's obviously intended to build awareness and anticipation for the upcoming Games, not just in the host nation or continent but across the globe.

For the Chinese, though, the torch has turned into a time bomb being flown from country to country. Everywhere it goes, people of all races and creeds share in their disdain for China's actions, particularly against Tibetans and by supporting the atrocities in Darfur.

Yet now, thanks to the IOC, China has the opportunity to use the world stage in August as a platform for propaganda. And that awful word, boycott, has seeped back into the Olympic movement's consciousness. So far, it has been confined to ideas including President George W. Bush and other world leaders boycotting the Aug. 8 opening ceremony, trying to make some kind of statement without disrupting the actual events and using athletes again as political pawns.

But you have to wonder, if the situation escalates much more, what might happen. Already, we've seen the Olympic torch being run through empty streets in some nations, with so much security that the public isn't allowed to see it.

As soon as the negative reaction began unfolding in such places as Paris, where protesters extinguished the flame briefly, the IOC should have moved quickly to stop the relay and allow the story to cool down. Instead, the relay has continued, assuring fresh material at every stop.

Amid all that, we continue hearing about China's difficulty in dealing with such issues as pollution and preparing facilities. That last part is interesting, because many of us who covered the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, Greece, remember Chinese promoters assuring us they were so far ahead in construction timetables that they were almost ready to stage the Olympics then, four years ago. Obviously, they weren't.

Thankfully, Bush so far has refused to consider preventing U.S. athletes from going to Beijing, insisting the Olympics should not be political. Even Mondale has weighed in lately, telling Associated Press that although China's actions in Tibet have been "bad, really bad," he doesn't feel they're as bad as the Soviets in 1980. He doesn't feel a boycott is warranted now.

Of course, it wasn't in 1980, either. Mondale told the AP that "we really made a shambles out of that Olympics," but that's revisionist history. In truth, those Games went on regardless, just as these will. If U.S. athletes and media aren't there, China would win many more medals and look more dominant to the rest of the world.

The best option is to stop the relay, immediately, so the Olympics can slide out of the spotlight until August. Then the athletes can gather and the countless feel-good stories can unfold. Along the way, perhaps the media will uncover more truths about the Chinese government.

But it's too dangerous for the Summer Games to continue sending that time bomb on its needless tour. That's simply too inviting.

Just one horrible incident, and we could be reliving 1980, all over again.

routon@csindy.com


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  • This year's pre-Olympic script seems eerily and ominously familiar, in too many ways.

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