Moscow's bizarre pageant
The Games War: A Moscow Journal Christopher Booker (Faber pp. 236, £5.95, £2.95) Christgpher Booker is, by his own admission, no ardent follower of spectator sports. It came as quite a shock when he found himself commissioned by the Daily Mail to cover the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The newspaper was sending its own highly professional team of sports commentators, and it was difficult to see what rOle he could play in the impending opera bouffe. The Features Editor, John Bryant, explained. 'Regard yourself as an artist', he urged; 'just record impressions of whatever catches your eye.'
Booker rightly sensed that, on a whole series of levels, the Moscow Olympics possessed symbolic significance beyond any held before. (The hope that they might prove to be the last regrettably proved delusive). There was, of course, the striking parallel with the Games held at Berlin in 1936. Those had proved an immense success for the Nazi propaganda movement — how immense has been largely forgotten or obscured, if one may judge by the inanities of commentators in the popular media. They continually propounded the view that the victories of Jesse Owens had dominated the Games, that Hitler had in consequence stormed from the auditorium in disgust, and that, athletically 'speaking, the event had proved a humiliation for Germany. The pundits had apparently forgotten to check which nation actually 'won' the 1936 Olympics.
The apotheosis of Hitler's Games had left a had taste in the mouths of many contemplating the recurrence of such an event in a country ruled by an equally totalitarian and aggressive regime. There was even a kind of spiritual succession between the two. The Soviet Union was, after all, the only one of Hitler's allies in World War II not to have deserted him voluntarily, and her conquests in Eastern Europe were first 'legitimised' by Hitler's award in August 1939.
In fact there were much stronger reasons for not holding the Games in Moscow in 1980 than there had been for removing them from Berlin in 1936. Then the Olympic Committee had already negotiated the arrangement with the German Government before Hitler became Chancellor. In 1936 Nazi crimes lay more in posse than in esse, and no German soldier had as yet set foot on foreign soil. The contrast with Soviet activities to date need not be recapitulated.
What appears to haVe happened in the intervening 44 years is that sport had developed into a bizarre cult, affording an alternative model to the real world. Alfred Adler long ago noted the ,harmful effects of sporting enthusiasms carried to excess. Unable to cope with the real world, the games fanatic becomes absorbed in a substitute life, one with its own rules and pointless achievements. This is not of course to decry the benefits of a healthy body, nor the innocent pleasures of youthful competition, but the dangerous flight from reality evinced by the Olympic Committee and its supporters is clear for all to see.
Television brought cruelly to life the gulf which had imperceptibly been interposing itself between the Olympians and the world of reality. Shambling inarticulates like David Bedford (a runner) mumbled their conviction that sport was above politics, existing in an empyrean world of its own, altruistic and beyond criticism. Still more terrifying than the athletes were the members of the Committee itself. The portly Lord Killanin (an Irish peer) and the portly Sir Denis Follows (a sort of sober and humourless Falstaff) literally could not understand what the fuss was about. Killanin had discovered that the Red Army had invaded Afghanistan. Follows on the other hand had evidently never allowed his eyes to stray from the sports pages of the Sun. He retained the most confused impression as to where that remote country was, whether it was inhabited or not, how many bricks, make nine, etc.
This was the setting for the bizarre pageant which Christopher Booker witnessed in Moscow and occupied Estonia, Hitler's 40 year-old gift to Stalin. He observed on a daily basis the truth of Djilas's recent observation that Russia herself is an occupied country. Thousands of troops maintained ostentatious presence in the capital, many of whose inhabitants had been driven from the city lest they become corrupted by contact with the thousands of foreign visitors. Children had been despatched to Pioneer camps and other safely rural places of exile, their unguarded tongues providing a perennial source of KGB apprehension. The visitors themselves were quarantined in hotels and restaurants barred to Ruasians. After a while even the hard-boiled hacks became distressed at their imprisonment. Like visitors to the court of Attila the Hun, they were supplied with prostitutes and strong liquor, but man does not live on fornication and inebriation alone. One Of Mr Booker's most telling moments came when the aeroplane he shared with return' jng journalists left Soviet air space. There was a spontaneous cheer from all the passengers, followed by another as they touched down at Heathrow. However, not all that took place required an acid touch. The idiosyncracies of his fellow reporters are observed with sympathy and good humour. Passing contacts with real Russians and Estonians pointed up the contrast between the nuMhillg backwardness and general blocglY" mindedness of the occupying power and its intensely warm, generous and hospitable inhabitants. A good story illustrates the material penalties of living in a fully socialist state. Brezhnev's daughter, it seems, visited London with a group of privileged Soviet tourists. Though at home they had access to special shops inaccessible to normal sians, their one aim was to spring onto an 80 bus and visit Messrs Marks and Spencer' Miss Brezhnev alone looked on the excite,: smeeenmts,wbitehlonsugepdertciolitohuast thianuyteguror.upShire:thiet oligarchy which has access to a yet 111°T.e exclusive store offering equivalent goods in the Party compound outside Moscow. 14e1 companions were suitably impressed, as until then they had not even been aware that there existed a level of luxurY above that afforded them. As Mr Booker remarks, 'the reallY interesting thing about it is even the possibility that the highest mark of materi,a., privilege in the Soviet Union might consit simply of being able to buy the sort of goc?s, which everyone in Britain can find in Mara' and Spencer's'. ' The Games War is an important book. The 1980 Olympics have already dis. appeared down History's S-bend. Killanin, Follows and Bedford are no more. But the Games symbolised on several levels::: turning point of 1980. Despite world condemnation and widespread abstenticn the Soviet Union was still able to stage the Games. Much of the pageantry was undeP,1: ably impressive. Soviet athletes, steroto saturated and given to cheating as dlateYe :were, nevertheless clearly `wcin Gaines. The boycott was a failure to the extent that it had not prevented their occurrence.
Yet behind this show of strength and defiance the likely coming pattern of Soviet affairs in the 1980s betrayed itself. Behind the ostentation and oppression lay an evident fear: fear of the visitors, fear of the uninhibited prattling of Russian children, fear of losing. The tens of thousands of troops garrisoning Russia's ancient capital were not there to testify to the regime's confidence in its staying powers. And throughout, as the author skilfully interpolates, there ran the rumbling prelude to change in Russia: the Polish crisis. The event was ephemeral, but Mr Booker has written a valuable story.Perhaps more than any other non-event, the Moscow Olympics will come to epitomise a crucial moment in the decline and fall of the East. The dust-jacket of The Games War carries a photograph of three goosestepping Soviet youths,, each clasping with an intense expression of mongol idiocy a surprised-looking dove. It is not explained whether the doves succeeded in escaping, but I would venture long odds that they will.