NEW YORK — The ultimate Olympic sports machine may be broken apart, piece by piece, in the wake of the apparent disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could be flying their flags and sending their athletes to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain. The once unthinkable has become probable in the wake of the failed Soviet coup and the sweeping changes that have followed.
"I think we are seeing the red flag for the last time," International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch said yesterday, a reference to the Soviet hammer and sickle that was raised to honor gold medalists at the World Track and Field Championships in Tokyo.
The IOC is expected to react to the rapid pace of events in the Soviet Union by readmitting the three Baltic republics as full members during an executive board meeting Sept. 16-17 in Berlin.
The move is seen by many as an initial step that could result in the Soviet sports empire being altered radically. Seven of the 15 republics that make up the Soviet Union have made bids for outright political independence.
"All we can do is wait and see," said Anita De Frantz, an IOC member. "The Baltic republics have been pressing for recognition for quite some time. I'm not an expert on politics. But I can tell you about the sports. This could be the beginning of profound change."
Since being admitted to the Olympic movement in 1952, the Soviets have won 1,212 medals, the most during the period.
"There are outstanding athletes throughout the republics," De Frantz said.
At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, 24 Lithuanian athletes who competed for the Soviet Union collected medals. Four of the five stars in the Soviets' men's basketball victory over the United States were Lithuanian.
Frank Lubin, a member of the gold-medal winning 1936 U.S. Olympic basketball team, coached in Lithuania from 1936 to 1939. He said the public has a rich tradition in basketball and track and field.
"Lithuanians have always been good in sports," said Lubin, 81, a resident of Glendale, Calif. "When they got their independence in 1918, many Lithuanian-Americans went to help in sports. While I was there, I met many American track men and boxers. We were anxious to help in any way."
Lubin expects Lithuania to do well in Barcelona.
"They'll show up very, very strong," he said. "I think many of the basketball players will get together and play at the Olympics in Barcelona."
But it's unlikely that a Lithuanian basketball team will play in Barcelona. Samaranch said such recognition would allow the republics to send "some dozens" of competitors to Barcelona, though it might be impossible for the republics to enter a full complement of athletes in all sports.
But Samaranch said athletes from the republics still may be able to compete for the Soviet Union.
"We are very flexible," he said. "We do not want to put obstacles in front of people. If they agree among themselves, why not? But that's a very complicated situation, not only for the IOC, but for the world."
Between 1920 and 1936, Estonia competed in the Summer Olympics five times and the Winter Olympics twice. Latvia competed in four Summer Olympics between 1924 and 1936. Lithuania competed in the Summer Olympics of 1924 and 1928.
Alexander Kozlovsky, deputy chairman of the Soviet Olympic Committee, said attempts are being made to preserve a united Olympic committee.
"Of course, all these changes in the country will influence us," Kozlovsky told The Associated Press.
"We have a very, very developed structure in the country, which is really difficult to destroy with one word or one move," he said.