A United States-led boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow sparked some controversy before the 1984 Games were hosted by the United States.
1980: The Boycott
The 1980 Games were scheduled to take place in Moscow, but in December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.This caused then U.S. President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum on Jan. 20, 1980 —if the Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan within a month from the issue of the ultimatum, then the United States would boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow.
“The athletes were distressed at the use of the Olympics and the American athletes for a political agenda. That’s sort of counter to the whole Olympic Games, especially in the US where the government doesn’t support the athletes at all but then sort of feel like [Carter] has a right to use us… We didn’t think it was going to be effective,” American rower Carol Brown ’75 said.
In the interim, Brown and her team raced against the East Germans in the Lucerne Regatta. The East Germans, who were the Olympic Champions at the time, had been consistently winning every rowing event. That year, for the first time, the United States boat beat the East German boat.
“I knew the East German National Anthem in my sleep because they were so dominant. Of course, now we know that they were on a lot of drugs and steroids. But at the time, beating them, even if it wasn’t in Moscow at the Olympics, it was hugely satisfying,” Brown said.
Brown’s team got on an airplane to the United States hoping to repeat their win at the Games.
“We were just waiting, hoping that maybe the Russians would pull out. But they weren’t fazed by it at all. So they did nothing, and the deadline came,” Brown said.
Carter not only said that the United States would not attend the Games, but also put pressure on its allies to not attend.Sixty nationsincluding Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Canada and Argentina also boycotted the Games.
“That was even worse because to this day… I got to come home and vote in the next election and say, ‘you really pissed me off and I’m not going to vote for you.' But what are these athletes in other countries that missed their chance to go to the Olympics... How does that influence what they think about the US for the rest of their lives? They couldn’t vote. So we not only imposed this on our own athletes, but we imposed it on athletes from like a dozen other countries that didn’t get to go because the US strong armed them,” Brown said.
Brown said that one of the worst parts of the 1980 Games was that right until the end, the U.S. athletes hoped that they would be able to compete. Some rowers had even filed a lawsuit against the United States Olympic Committee, hoping that the decision could change.
The decision to boycott the Games did not change.
“Our boycott of Moscow in the 80s was one of the stupidest things the State Department has ever done. It really didn’t do anything,” American shot putter August Wolf ’83, who competed in the 1984 Games, said.
Brown said that several athletes, including some of women in her boat, did not have the chance to go to another Games because they had put off other obligations such as going to medical school.
“They weren’t going to be around for ’84, so ‘80 was their one chance. And the fact that the U.S. President used the Olympic Games for his own personal political agenda is still devastating to any of us that were part of the movement and believe in the Olympics as truly transcending global strife and politics,” Brown said.
Brown added that the Russians may have been bad actors on the global stage in those days, but the Russian competitors in the boats were not “the bad guys."
“[Russian rowers] had to get up and get their butt out of bed and train the same way I did. The governments can disagree and be at odds with each other, but the athletes can still respect each other as athletes regardless of the color of their uniform. I felt like Carter really tarnished that and ignored everything the Games stood for,” Brown said.
1984: Home Ground
The 1984 Games, which were the first completely privatized Games, were held in Los Angeles. According to American fencer Lee Shelley ’78, this was the first Olympics which made a profit.
Shelley said that being on the U.S. Team in his home country was very special.
“There was an incredible sense of pride in the U.S. hosting the Games, from the athletes to the spectators to just regular folks you would meet in public. The facilities and the logistics of getting around the city were first class,” Shelley said.
According to Shelley, the Olympians were housed in dormitories on the campus at the University of Southern California. He added that there was tight security around the athletes’ village —you had to show credentials to gain access to the village.
“Our dorm was very close to the swimming and diving venue. We heard the National Anthem played many times as our athletes won their events. And then we would see them back in the dorm wearing their medals. Very cool,” Shelley noted.
Brown said that since the rowing course was in Santa Barbara, her team was away from the Olympic Village until their competition ended. Brown added that during this time, she felt a little removed from the Games as she did not have a cell phone that would have allowed her to watch and follow the Games.
Wolf said that since his shot put event was on the last day of the Olympics, he was asked to go home and train instead of staying at the Village. During the Games, Wolf trained at UC Irvine with the German Olympic Team, because his coach was German.
Wolf showed up at the Village the day before his event. He said that his first thoughts at the event were “Oh My God”, as he saw the thousands of people cheering him on. Wolf added that, unfortunately, he was fairly nervous.
“I had spent most of the year training with the goal of making the Olympic team, thinking of that moment over and over and over. And that paid off at the Olympic trial,” Wolf said.
Wolf said he finished infourth place, adding that he had been nervous throughout the Games.
“Had I relaxed, I could have won a gold medal,” Wolf said.
Wolf went on to work with the U.S. Athletic Trust, which is an organization that sponsors athletes after they graduate from college. He also became a Trustee of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation where he works on fundraising for the athletes.
Shelley, who had been on World Championship and Pan American Games teams since 1977, did not make the Olympic Team until 1984 due the point system that was used for qualifications.
“While competing there could be long periods of time waiting between when you are actually fencing an opponent. I would listen to music through headphones on my Sony Walkman to relax, and then I would slowly loosen up and stretch for my next bout,” Shelley said, “When I was actually fencing, I would try to empty my mind and just react to the movements and flow of that bout. My best fencing was when it felt like I had no thoughts at all.”
Shelley finished tenth in the team men’s epee, and 38thin the individual men’s epee. He went on to compete in the 1988 Games.
1988: The Boys’ Team
Shelley said that the Olympians were treated with “exceptional hospitality” by theSouthKoreans at the 1988 Games in Seoul. He added that the 1988 Games were different from the 1984 Games because there were not as many Americans around the Games’ venues and in the city.
According to Shelley, the Olympians lived in new buildings that were built for the Games and were scheduled to be used as apartments afterwards.
Haitian shot putter Deborah Saint-Phard ’87 said that the Olympic Village was like a beautiful carnival of athletes. She said that there were several sponsors’ tents that athletes were allowed to take anything they wanted from, and a phone center with "millions of phones and millions of languages." There was also a lot of music and entertainment.
“It was sort of like Disneyland for athletes,” Saint-Phard said.
She added that the spirit of the Village became increasingly lighter as the Olympians finished their competitions and switched from training and performance mode to carnival mode.
Shelley added that Seagram’s, the beverage company, had a program to send one family member of each U.S. athlete to the Games. As a result, her mother flew to Seoul and was able to experience the Games in a completely different culture, she added.
“She also got to attend the Opening Ceremonies and we waved at each other as I was in the Parade of Nations. What a thrill,” Shelley said.
Saint-Phard said that the accommodation for the Olympians’ families was also very well-built, and sometimes nicer than the athletes’.
She added that the Olympic Village was a very "neat community," where athletes spent time with each other, played ping pong and even ate meals together.
“You got to hang out with people who were doing what you were doing, and from all over the world. It was like all of a sudden, you were living in this little world at the Olympics,” Saint-Phard said.
Saint-Phard said that she recalled an alarm going through the Village at5:30or6 a.m.the day of the Opening Ceremony, and that the athletes spent the whole morning getting to stadium. In the two and a half hours leading up to the ceremony, all teams sat fully dressed out in the practice track behind the stadium and took pictures with their teammates and with Olympians from different countries, untilit was their turn to enter.
According to Saint-Phard, Korean women dressed in full formal Korean dresses carried each country’s name on a placard, which was followed by the country’s contingent led by its flag bearer. She carried the flag for the Haitian contingent.
“You go into a dark tunnel, and again you can’t hear anything… And then you come out into the light of the stadium. And all of a sudden, you hear the announcer in like 3 different languages announcing your country’s name… And 85,000 people in this packed stadium just go up in an oration that is so welcoming and start waving. That’s the incredible, impassioned welcome of an entire stadium of people who are just excited for the Games, the events and that you’re there,” she said.
Saint-Phard, who chose to pursue shot put upon herseventh grade coach’s suggestion, soon “outgrew” the coaching offered to the women’s field athletes at the University.
“I could see the level of coaching the men were getting. I believe that I could get better with a coach with more distinction, because technique is so important, especially in throwing events,” she said.
Saint-Phard was then coached by Geoff Seay '86 until he graduated, before she was coached by Fred Samara '86, the University’s men’s track and field coach.
“What are you going to do? You’re going take the best girl athletes and put them on the boys’ team? Or do you raise the bar for the person who’s coaching the women?” Saint-Phard said.She added that her new coaches helped find funds from then University President William Bowen directly to help her attain the higher level of competition she needed in order to develop.
American long distance runner Lynn Jennings ’83 ran on the boys team at her high school.
“I was the only girl in the league and on the team and I worked hard to keep up with the boys we competed against…No girls had ever gone out for cross country before me. Soon after I graduated, more and more girls went out for the team,” Jennings said.
Jennings, who also tried to qualify for the 1984 Games, said that she quit after “performing poorly” in the women’s 3000 meters at the Trials.
“I spent the summer of ’84 painting my parents’ house in Harvard, MA and sneaking inside to catch glimpses of the Olympic Games. I watched a woman who I used to routinely beat win the marathon gold, Joan Benoit, and that spurred me to try once again and I began training immediately and put myself back together,” she said.
Jennings achieved a sixth place finish in the 1988 Games before she went on to compete in the 1992 Games.
Saint-Phard said that at the Games, she only had three throws, instead of the nine she was used to at Nationals. She said that the three throws did not give her adequate time to warm up to qualify for the final round.
“The grander the stage, the more mental focus and discipline you have to have. And the other thing is that you don’t get those opportunities very much, so it’s hard to get used to being on that stage if you don’t compete on an international stage,” she said.
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