Most of the United States' world-class athletes missed the opportunity of a lifetime to stand up for some indispensable intangibles.
They blew a chance to tell the world about the advantages that American citizens enjoy in the way of rights and values as bestowed by the U.S. Constitution.
That Constitution gives Americans a personal freedom, liberty and dignity not yet attained by many foreign nations, even in Europe.
For failing to say so--clearly and insistently--during the Butch Reynolds controversy, America's Olympians and Olympic officials have let their country down.
Reynolds, 28, is an Ohio quarter-miler who holds the world 400-meter record. He was also a member, sort of, of the U.S. Olympic team.
Trouble was, there was a dispute over Reynolds' eligibility between those who represent American and non-American interests.
In the controversy, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which has the power in world track and field, ruled against Reynolds even though he has had the support of The Athletics Congress, which has the power in U.S. track and field.
Last Oct. 4, after the Europe-based federation suspended America's 1988 gold medalist because it said he had a positive drug test, TAC investigators discovered that technicians hired by the IAAF had repeatedly bungled 1990 drug testing in a process that wrongfully involved Reynolds.
A TAC review panel, unanimously recommending that the runner's suspension be lifted, stated in its October summation that there were numerous "testing and procedural errors" in the IAAF's Reynolds report.
As an editorial in The Times said last month: "It turns out that (Reynolds') two urine samples were improperly sealed and labeled.
"Eventually, tests found that the two samples ostensibly from Reynolds did not come from the same person.
"Moreover, he tested clean a week later."
In a country that respects individual rights, the TAC panel report proved persuasive to TAC's executive committee, which on April 12 informed the IAAF that Reynolds would compete in events leading up to the Olympics.
The IAAF, however, was not persuaded.
IAAF members rejected TAC's findings outright and announced that Reynolds is still under his two-year suspension, which they imposed Nov. 5, 1990.
So his attorneys took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice John Paul Stevens ruled in his favor.
At that point, TAC gave up on Reynolds. Siding with the IAAF, attorneys for TAC asked the full Supreme Court to overrule Stevens.
In some countries, the IAAF and its new partner, TAC, would have won the last round. In a country whose courts have respect for human rights, the partnership lost.
It lost in Washington, that is--but not in Europe, where the IAAF renewed an old pledge: "Reynolds will never run at Barcelona."
It was a sad moment for America.
If, instead of voting to sacrifice a countryman, the American citizens on TAC had gone the last mile with Reynolds--who, after all, had the backing of their own investigators--they would have sent an essential, courageous message to other continents.
As former President Carter said recently, "Americans should be the champions of human rights throughout the world."
There are three particularly disturbing things about the Reynolds case:
--Most of his teammates have failed since the beginning of the controversy to stand with and for him. He has had to fight almost alone for his rights.
For instance, when the IAAF threatened Olympic ineligibility for every American running against Reynolds in the New Orleans trials, only two of the 32 in the field said they would compete. They were Reynolds and his brother Jeff.
Their actions identify the 30 others as rather weak-kneed young people who fear IAAF threats more than they appreciate U.S. values.
Those with faith in the U.S. justice system were rewarded when, as soon as the Supreme Court was consulted, it was the IAAF that blinked--reneging on its threats.
--TAC leaders and U.S. Olympic Committee members have meanwhile emerged as needlessly spineless. Though they have acknowledged that the IAAF is wrong on Reynolds, their support for him has been perfunctory when it didn't disappear altogether.
For instance, TAC volunteered to add an extra relay candidate to the Barcelona team--an action that would, in effect, give the IAAF its choice: Reynolds or a slower U.S. runner. Who doubts that a deal of that kind would eliminate Reynolds or any other person similarly trapped by the IAAF?
With their actions, TAC executives are sending a message that they fear the IAAF too much to fight for the rights of an individual who has been absolved by their own panel.
--Even more significant, and more ominous, is the fact that the Reynolds case illuminates a great divide in the world community. After all these centuries, a gulf still separates Americans from others in an understanding of, and appreciation for, the rights of individuals.
The enlightened American knows that he was born with the same rights that all other Americans have--millionaires or homeless, Olympic athletes or Olympic officials. By comparison, the more tradition-bound, class-conscious European is more likely to bow uncomplainingly to a king, a dictator, an athletic magistrate or the collective determination of a committee or sports federation.
For instance, there are no riots in the pubs of London when the IAAF issues its high-handed decrees.
The federation's contamination threats in the Reynolds case were typically high-handed. Those facing him would be contaminated, the IAAF ruled, and eliminated as Olympic contenders.
Most Americans, however, recognize the contamination concept as guilt-by-association nonsense. In this country, a murderer's family doesn't hang.
Unhappily, some Americans seem to be a little uncertain about that. In New Orleans last month, when, fearing contamination, the New Orleans 400-meter field wouldn't budge, TAC postponed the race.
No TAC official, or USOC official, had the courage to stand on the American Constitution and announce: "We're having the race today, gentlemen. The first six finishers are on the team."
It was only after the U.S. Supreme Court did TAC's job for TAC that TAC scheduled the event.
Nor is it in the record that any American amateur athletic official protested in late June when Primo Nebiolo of Rome, the head of the IAAF, advised the USOC to advise the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives as follows:
--Pass a law that "will prevent the (U.S.) civil courts" from interfering in IAAF business.
--If "such legislation is not achieved," we might not allow the American track team to compete in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The Nebiolo manifesto illustrates not so much his arrogance as the difference between European and U.S. notions of justice.
It's an unfortunate difference.
In defense of TAC's attitude toward Nebiolo and the Europeans--which is of a piece with USOC's--this isn't an easy world for America's amateur athletic officials.
The IAAF and IOC are powerful forces. Among other things, the IOC controls the Olympics' luxurious perks--hotels, parties, advancement in the movement, travel to glamorous resorts for IOC meetings, and all the rest.
In every country, the IOC controls every Olympic official's future in international sports.
Even so, in this and all other modern Olympic controversies, it's the Americans who hold the hole card: U.S. television money. Though international sports are televised in all nations these days, Italy, for instance, doesn't add much to the IOC's net worth.
The great bulk of IOC revenue comes from U.S. television, which is to say from U.S. television advertisers.
In the years leading up to the 1996 Games, America's Olympic leaders should flash that TV hole card occasionally, if discreetly, in order to get the rest of the world on track toward the American value and justice systems.
They would be doing the European masses a favor. It needn't be only in America that one guy is as good as the next.
Some of us would say that America's Olympic athletes and officials have blown it this time, but they can recover. For those who believe in the Constitution, it's easy.