By Frank W. Martin
Updated April 14, 1980 12:00 PM

When Jimmy Carter called for an Olympic boycott, he was gambling that he could face down an implacable opponent: the Soviet Union. The Russians, of course, ignored his February 20 deadline for pulling out of Afghanistan—and Carter announced his “final and irrevocable” decision to keep the U.S. out of the Moscow Games. But now the President is up against a new adversary, the United States Olympic Committee. The USOC, which two months ago supported Carter’s bid to move the Summer Games out of Russia, is currently waffling and poised to defy his boycott.

This weekend the USOC’s prevailing House of Delegates meets in Colorado Springs to consider its next move. The proceedings may well be influenced by the fact that USOC executive director F. Don Miller and committee president Robert Kane have caught a severe case of pro-Games fever. The Summer Olympics, after all, is their big show, and some millions of NBC and other private American investments are at stake. “When you say ‘irrevocable,’ that’s hard for intelligent people to take,” says Kane. “The athletes start feeling like pawns.” Miller notes that his mail shows boycott support has dipped from 80 to 40 percent of Americans. He contends that “the boycott would be effective only if other major nations participated and if the Soviets threatened the security and national interest of the U.S.”

“A unilateral boycott could be turned into a propaganda ruse for the Russians,” argues Al Oerter, who has four gold medals in the discus. “The Soviet people might believe the U.S. had a weak team and would never know the real reason.” Mixed signals from abroad have added to the distress: The British, Norwegian, French and Italian Olympic committees have voted to field teams. The West German, Japanese, Chinese and Kenyan governments have indicated support for the boycott. Meanwhile hundreds of American athletes continue to set their sights and dedicate their lives to the Games. Boasts women’s volleyball coach Arie Selinger: “We’re going, no matter what. We’ll find a way.”

By declaring a national state of emergency, Carter could make every way illegal. He could revoke athletes’ passports and prohibit travel to the U.S.S.R. That would be like playing political Russian roulette, but Kane says “Carter could make it tough, turn the public against us and do a lot of mean things.” Partly to placate the President, the USOC is pondering a compromise in which the U.S. will participate, all the while staging symbolic protests at the Games, like refusing to attend opening, closing and medal award ceremonies. “That way,” Kane points out, “it would be on TV for two weeks in the Soviet Union.” There’s even a militant proposal of having U.S. teams substitute the flag of Afghanistan for their own.

But the USOC’s strongest pitch is the plight of the athletes. “They’ve suffered physically and been completely frustrated by the debate,” says Miller. On the women’s volleyball team, which has been prepping off and on since 1974, one player gave up a school coaching job, one postponed a marriage and another lost a cello career because of a hand injury. Now they are asking, what price Old Glory?