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U.S. Athletes Have New Opponent to Consider--Terrorism

May 18, 1986|CHRISTINE BRENNAN | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Davis Phinney, one of the United States' better professional cyclists, was on a stopover in New York on his way to Majorca for the Tour of Spain when he got word to go no farther.

His 7-Eleven cycling team had just withdrawn from the race. The reason was simple. The team members were so concerned about terrorism they didn't want to ride.

Phinney didn't argue.

"There is no reason to get killed over a bike race," he said.

The cyclists were not alone in their fears. Scores of U.S. athletes, coaches and officials are canceling or reconsidering trips, rescheduling flights to avoid certain airports, changing their wardrobes to get "U.S.A." off their backs, or, at the very least, expressing concerns about traveling abroad this year.

"This really is a time of flux in international sports," said David Prouty, executive director of the U.S. Cycling Federation. "I think we all are sitting down, looking at the situation and trying to regroup."

The constant threat of terrorism, the recent U.S. attack on Libya and the nuclear accident in the Soviet Union have triple-teamed U.S. athletes and teams on the eve of an incredibly busy summer sports schedule.

Pros, amateurs, adults, kids: It doesn't matter. The National Football League has to cope, and so does a girls soccer team from suburban San Francisco.

The United States Tennis Assn. will not send junior players to the Italian or French Opens, or to Wimbledon. The Phoenix Suns have scrapped plans to send coaches and players to Bulgaria for clinics this summer. Trips to Europe have been called off by the DePauw University football team, women's basketball teams at Rollins College and the University of North Carolina and an all-star field hockey team from two small Pennsylvania colleges.

There's more. At the last minute, a U.S. cycling team pulled out of the prestigious Peace Race through Eastern bloc countries last week. The starting line was in Kiev, 80 miles south of Chernobyl, site of the nuclear accident. Sport for Understanding, a Washington-based organization that arranges international sports exchanges for teen-agers, has canceled all four of its trips to Italy. Tennis players and golfers have voiced loud concerns.

"Put yourself in (the terrorists') position," golfer Hale Irwin told the Associated Press. "The British Open, Wimbledon, the French Open. You want to make a splash. Those places aren't protected like embassies. Anybody can buy a ticket and walk in, carrying anything. It's something you think about."

Although an Aug. 3 NFL pre-season game between the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys still is scheduled for London's Wembley Stadium (capacity 80,000, including room for 40,000 in a standing area) the league is navigating unprecedented security channels to make sure the participants are safe.

Joe Rhein, the league's director of administration, said talks have been held with Scotland Yard and the State Department.

"This is something we haven't had to deal with before," he said, "something we have to learn a lot about."

Officials from both teams have expressed concern. But not Bears Coach Mike Ditka. He told The Chicago Tribune last week that the game must go on.

"I wish I had a machine gun to take on the plane," he said. "I agree totally with our country and its actions (against Libya). I don't have any qualms about (playing the game). What are they going to do? Bomb the stadium?"

When asked what he would think if terrorists did indeed bomb the stadium, Ditka said, "We'll all go down in history as martyrs fighting for a cause that was beyond the control of most of the American people. People will be writing about us for years if that happens."

Moments later, he added a footnote: "I get too excited about things sometimes."

Like the NFL preseason game, Ted Turner's Goodwill Games, set for July 5 to 20 in Moscow, apparently are going ahead as scheduled.

"My first thought when I heard about Chernobyl was, 'Oh my God, another 1980 (a U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics),' " said a Goodwill Games official who asked not to be identified. "But we think now we have nothing to worry about. Everything is go."

The U.S. team will be selected in competition in the next six weeks, but spokespersons in track and field circles said they have heard no prospective participants complain about going to the Soviet Union.

"Naturally, we've all kept one eye on Chernobyl," said Pete Cava, press information director of The Athletics Congress. "We're waiting to see what develops, but no one has said to me they aren't going to go."

There is a prevailing opinion among many, especially those in amateur sports, that nothing, not a nuclear accident, not terrorist acts, will prevent U.S. athletes from competing in foreign lands.

Robert Helmick is president of the U.S. Olympic Committee and president of FINA, the international swimming organization.

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