The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

The 1980 Olympic Boycott

Feb 19th, 2010
8:21 am PDT

1980 Summer Olympic Games

I read a series of comments from former athletes regarding the 1980 Olympic boycott and their opinions of then President Jimmy Carter and his decision not to send an American team to the Moscow Olympics.

While I can respect these individuals for trying to give politically correct answers, it’s clear that they were all unwilling pawns who were asked to give up their life long dreams as sacrifices in a political move that was of no consequence politically! They were effectively lead to slaughter as casualties of a war they never signed up to fight in. So how does anyone think they “really” felt about the situation?

Yes, we can ask if politics and sports should mix / intersect. And unfortunately the reality of life is that they often do. Primarily because sport on the big stage is visible to the world – with the Olympics being the largest stage and therefore the most frequent victim of political “intervention”.

We can choose from among several Olympic Games for examples of politics intervening. From the Berlin Olympics of Nazi Germany in 1936. To the Mexico City Games of 1968 and the ongoing protests of the Mexican citizens and the near boycott and visual protests of black athletes. There were the Israeli deaths in Munich in 1972 and African nation boycotts in Montreal in 1976.

But for American athletes, as well as the Olympic movement itself, nothing overshadows the boycott of Moscow in 1980 – especially for the sport of track and field. Why?

For the Olympic movement it began what became a twelve year drought between “full” participation in the Games. With the US boycott in 1980 taking us and our “allies” out of the Games. The Soviet Union reciprocated in kind by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games, taking them and their “allies” out of the Games. Leaving the 1976 Montreal Games as the last “full” Games until the 1988 Games in Seoul! When taken into context that the Games were developed to further “Good Will”, that was a huge blow to the Olympic movement as the world’s major powers from the “East” and the “West” went over a decade without head to head competition in the Games!

For American athletes the 1980 boycott was a huge set back! Consider that at that time Olympic sports were still amateur in nature. So there were no “sponsors”, or “contracts” that could sustain an athlete between Games. In track and field there were not yet the huge paydays on the European Circuit that we see today.

So an athlete that either just missed out in 1976, and/or began to emerge sometime between ’76 and ’80, suddenly found him/herself facing another four year wait to try and prove him/herself on the World’s biggest stage. Meaning that for many athletes they were looking at somewhere in the neighborhood of a six to eight year waiting period for the Games!

Consider a four year doping ban for an athlete and the uphill climb they have trying to maintain being among the best and you are beginning to understand what these athletes had to face. Yet THEY did nothing wrong, but had to serve their Olympic “ban” anyway. And in track and field there was no alternative because the World Championships weren’t a reality until 1983 – right before the next Games!

For the best of the best it created an eight year “black hole”. For example, Edwin Moses who had a break through season in ’76 when he won Olympic gold was unable to defend in 1980! He had to wait until ’84 when once again he dominated the field – 1980 depriving him of a chance at three Olympic golds in a row.

Or how about Evelyn Ashford. Like Moses she began to climb towards stardom when she made the ’76 Olympic team. At the World Cup in ’79 she faced and defeated the best the East had to offer in Marlies Gohr (100) and Marita Koch (200). Evelyn never received her opportunity at validation before a global audience because she wasn’t able to attend the Games in ’80, and her counterparts didn’t attend the Los Angeles Games in ’84. By 1988 all had aged and the sprint scene had been taken over by one FloJo!

Or how about the biggest travesty of all – Renaldo Nehemiah never attending an Olympic Games. Nehemiah was a rising force in the high hurdles taking the hurdle record from 13.21 to 13.00 before the Moscow Games. Unfortunately Nehemiah never reached the starting blocks in Moscow due to the boycott. Still in his prime, however, Nehemiah dropped the record further to 12.93 in 1981 before deciding that waiting until 1984 was just too long, and deciding to try his hand at professional football because at the time there were no contracts or sponsors in track and field! That would be akin to Usain Bolt going on his record breaking tear the past couple of seasons but NEVER being able to take his act to the Olympics!

This is just a handful of names. The world never got to know athletes like Dedy Cooper, James Sanford, Bill Green, Billy Mullins, Willie Smith, Clancy Edwards, James Mallard, Don Paige, Todd Harbour, James Butler, Stanley Floyd, David Mack, and Matt Centrowitz just to throw a handful of names out there. Olympic caliber athletes who never got to display their wares on the world’s biggest stage because at their peak we didn’t attend!

These athletes were robbed of one of the greatest opportunities the sporting world has to offer. So great is the allure of the Games that when “pros” were allowed in in 1992 Michael Jordan, David Robinson, Magic Johnson and the rest of the “Dream Team” considered it one of the biggest honors of their athletic careers – and they won NBA championships!

Nations have armies, navies, air forces, and soldiers to fight their wars. Denying athletes the fruit of their labor over the course of years and years of dedication, work that they put in without the assistance of a country that then in turn decided to utilize them as pawns in a global game of chess was just wrong. There were, and are, other forms of diplomacy outside of warfare than can and should have been used to make a global statement. So for all those athletes that, with a microphone in front of them, feel the need to be politically correct, I will say that they suffered a tremendous injustice. One for which they can never be compensated for. And if that left a bad taste in their mouth, or even left them bitter or angry, it is understandable – and they have that right.

One Response to “The 1980 Olympic Boycott”

  1. Jerome says:

    ´But for American athletes, as well as the Olympic movement itself, nothing overshadows the boycott of Moscow in 1980 – especially for the sport of track and field. Why?`
    I think you should have limited your comment to ´But for American athletes` because the the boycott of african nations in ´76 had a more profound effect on the Olympic movement. That boycott overshadows all others because it was the forerunner to mass political statements in the form of boycotts of the games. It signalled to the world that the world cannot play when the playing field is not equal, when some it´s participants are being injured and killed. NO NORMAL SPORT IN AN ABNORMAL SOCIETY.

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