Sunday, July 11, 2004

The shattered dreams team

In 1980, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games, forcing 8 local Olympians to watch from afar

By Neil Schmidt
Enquirer staff writer

They are older now. Grown. Graying. Yet they answer their phones, hear the question, and give the same knowing laugh.

"Ah, yes," says Barb McGrath. "The Olympic orphans."

Carter still frets about decision

In May 2002, former President Carter was asked how he viewed his decision to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. His answer:

"I really have mixed emotions about that; if there was one decision in my administration that I would reconsider it might be that one. You'll have to remember that at Christmastime of 1979, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan with massive military forces. Ten thousand troops moved into Afghanistan, and I felt that effort by the Soviet Union was a direct threat to the security of my country -- one of the rare times that happens. Had the Soviets been able to consolidate their hold on Afghanistan, they could easily then have moved either through Iran, which was at war with itself, or through Pakistan. Then they would have achieved a longtime Soviet ambition, to have access to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean.

So I announced that this was a direct threat to the security of our country, and that we would not permit the Soviet Union to be successful in Afghanistan. We surreptitiously -- and this was very secret then -- gave maximum support to the so-called freedom fighters in Afghanistan. We channeled assistance for those freedom fighters through Saudi Arabia, through Egypt and other places, and at the same time I imposed economic sanctions against the Soviet Union to try to force them to withdraw. But the debate about the Olympics is the one that was most memorable.

Well, the Congress passed a resolution, with 330 votes in favor, that we boycott the Olympics. The U.S. Olympic Committee, which is an independent agency -- I had nothing to do with appointing members or anything else -- voted overwhelmingly against participating in the Olympics in Moscow. I supported both those decisions. And I met, by the way, with the entire Olympic team, and expressed my regrets. At that time, most of them thought that the reasons were justified. But I've always regretted the -- let me use my own word -- the 'necessity' -- to put pressure on Moscow, because the Russians were then projecting participation in the Olympics as an imprimatur, or approval, not only of the Olympic Games, but also of the policies of the Soviet Union. I didn't think it was proper to do that. So the decision was made by the United States, (61) other nations, by the U.S. Congress, and the U.S. Olympic Committee, not to participate."

That's what the 1980 U.S. Olympians consider themselves. Their dreams torn apart when their country boycotted the Moscow Games, they occupy a curious place in history: Qualifying for a team that went nowhere, they both won and lost simultaneously.

Of the eight Cincinnati athletes who would have gone in 1980, six never made another Olympic team. Nearly a quarter-century later, their legacy has been lost.

"There are people that don't treat you like you made an Olympic team," said 1980 swimmer Glenn Mills, a Finneytown High grad. "They ask why you didn't go. Now you've got to go through the whole story.

"If we go out to Colorado Springs (to the U.S. Olympic Committee headquarters), they have a kiosk, 'Find your favorite Olympian.' I punch in my name, and all it says is: 'Did not compete; photo not available.' It's like, 'Oh, my gosh, 17 years of work, and this is all that's left.' "

A month before this year's Summer Olympics begin in Athens, 10 Greater Cincinnatians have qualified, with perhaps a few more to come. Yet the past few months have been colored by terrorist concerns, which raised the possibility that the United States might not send a team and caused a few athletes - most notably in basketball - to decline invitations.

For the eight former athletes, it's a flashback to the surreal spring of 1980. The boycott announcement that April preceded most Olympic Trials, so each triumph would be bittersweet.

Among the locals, archer Darrell Pace and canoeist Roland Muhlen took solace at the time from their previous Olympic trips.

Mike Sylvester, who claimed dual nationality with Italy, did get to play in the '80 Games - winning silver in basketball with the Italians.

But the rest knew only emptiness.

The late Dr. Aaron Weinstein, then president of U.S. amateur diving, attended the Games - but his Olympian daughter, Barb (McGrath is her married name), wasn't allowed to. Mills joined fellow swimmers Bill Barrett and Kimberly Carlisle on the sidelines. Also shut out were Sharon Furlong (nee Moore), an alternate in volleyball, and boxer Tony Tubbs, who turned pro when the boycott was announced, skipping the Trials.

The athletes have made their peace at their own pace. Carlisle couldn't watch the Olympics for 12 years, and McGrath still admits an ache each time the Games return.

"I find a surprising number of people that don't realize America didn't go in 1980," Sylvester says now. "It's a blip on the radar screen. Only the ones that got shafted are the ones who are going to remember it forever."

All eight athletes speak of the character built from that disappointment. Yet asked what lesson the boycott taught, the response is unanimous: "Politics and sports don't mix."

The low point

A generation ago, the Olympic movement was moving backward.

The 1972 Summer Games in Munich were shattered by the slaying of 11 Israeli athletes by Arab terrorists. The Montreal Games in '76 endured a boycott of 32 nations (most protesting the New Zealand rugby team's tour of racially segregated South Africa) and East German drug accusations. After the '80 boycott by the United States, the Soviet Union and 13 Communist allies reciprocated by boycotting the '84 Games in Los Angeles.

Yet '80 was clearly the low point. The first Olympics ever held in a Communist country offered a chance to thaw the Cold War, yet then-President Jimmy Carter orchestrated a boycott as a means of condemning the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It remains the largest boycott in Olympic history: 61 countries, including West Germany, Japan, China and Canada.

The greatest blow was to the Olympic ideal - the belief that nations could put their differences aside and commune through the universal language of sport.

"They should hold the Olympics in neutral territory on an island somewhere and put a secure fence around it," Pace said. "Let the world do their wars, their bickering - let us go do what we need to do."

Awkward time for athletes

Twenty-four years of hindsight don't reflect favorably on the boycott decision. Yet even the athletes remember it as inevitable.

The Carter administration had initiated a partial embargo on grain sales to the Soviets. Then boycott talk heated up, and the American public was slightly in favor of it.

It was awkward for the athletes.

"If you said you wanted to boycott, people turned around and said, 'You trained for four years - you don't want to go?' " Muhlen recalls. "If you said you didn't want to boycott, it's, 'OK, then you're un-American.' It was a Catch-22."

Muhlen, who was co-captain of the canoe and kayak team, joined athlete representatives of other sports for a meeting in Washington. They were asked to support a boycott - but elected not to.

They were summoned to the White House, where Carter told them he was making the recommendation to boycott anyway. "He was apologetic," Muhlen said.

Dr. Weinstein was a USOC delegate, as was the late Rolly Schwartz, a Cincinnatian who had managed the 1976 U.S. boxing team.

"I got my father's perspective on it, and he said his hands were tied," McGrath said.

The word came on April 12: The USOC's 2,403 delegates had voted to boycott by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.

Very tough life lesson

To the locals, the loss was immeasurable.

Denny Pursley, who would later be national team director for U.S. Swimming, had built the Cincinnati Pepsi Marlins into a power. They would win the overall team national championship title in 1980 and qualify six swimmers for the Games.

Mills, Barrett and Carlisle all went to school here.

The others - Mary T. Meagher and Lisa Buese of Louisville and Stephanie Elkins - trained in Cincinnati only during the year leading up to the Olympics.

Of the six, only Meagher would ever get to swim in an Olympics.

Barrett, a Turpin High grad, missed the most. He qualified second in the 100-meter breaststroke, in a time that would prove better than the eventual gold-medal winner. Barrett also held the world record in the 200-meter individual medley and won that event at the Trials.

Barrett won three individual NCAA titles and one team crown at UCLA. Yet, in 1984 - two years out of college - he narrowly missed making the '84 Olympic team.

That, he said, is when it hit home just what had been lost.

"It was a very tough but a very good lesson to learn in life - that you can do everything right but still not be able to reach your ambition or goal," he said.

Carlisle, a Finneytown High grad, would win two team national championships and one individual crown at Stanford. Graduating in '83, she chose to retire rather than train for the '84 Trials.

"The first 22 years of my life was school and swimming," she said. "All of a sudden, it was gone. That alone was hard enough. Then you layer a bitter pill like the boycott into it, and you have some real work to do to come to some acceptance."

McGrath had competed in the diving Trials in 1972 and '76, and she won three 10-meter platform national championships and took gold in the '79 Pan American Games. At Walnut Hills and through two years each at Ohio State and Michigan, she had to drive each week to Cleveland, which had the closest tower for practice.

Barb McGrath
• Sport: Diving
• Age: 46
• Residence: Blue Ash
• Professions: Marketing work for BodyTalk Fitness for Women; professional party planning; motivational speaking.
• Of note: Her father, the late Dr. Aaron Weinstein, was president of U.S. amateur diving and was able to attend the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Kimberly Carlisle
• Sport: Swimming
• Age: 43
• Residence: Menlo Park, Calif.
• Professions: Communications consultant for small businesses; marketing instructor at Stanford; motivational speaker.
• Of note: Aspiring filmmaker's first work will be documentary about U.S. children who went to China to paint a mural with Chinese students.
Tony Tubbs
• Sport: Boxing (didn't compete at Trials)
• Age: 46
• Residence: Cincinnati (currently incarcerated in Chillicothe)
• Profession: Actively boxing; also training boxers.
• Of note: Has struggled with drug addiction and is in prison a third time - currently for failure to pay child support.

Bill Barrett
• Sport: Swimming
• Age: 44
• Residence: Phoenix, Ariz.
• Profession: General manager of QV Distributors, a wholesale distribution company.
• Of note: Was American record-holder in two events in '80; '82 world silver medallist in 200-meter individual medley.
Glenn Mills
• Sport: Swimming
• Age: 42
• Residence: Stevensville, Md.
• Profession: Produces instructional swimming videos; technical adviser for Swimming World magazine.
• Of note: Finneytown grad is building a swimming school in Maryland.

Darrell Pace
• Sport: Archery
• Age: 47
• Residence: Hamilton
• Profession: Network administrator, Ohio Department of Natural Resources.
• Of note: Named one of 100 "Centennial Olympians" at 1996 Atlanta Games; archery's only two-time Olympic gold medallist (1976, '84).

Roland Muhlen
• Sport: Sprint canoeing
• Age: 61
• Residence: Green Township
• Profession: Union electrician; plans to retire later this year.
• Of note: Won more than 50 national titles in different canoe events; competed in '72 and '76 Games.

Sharon Furlong (nee Moore)
• Sport: Volleyball (alternate)
• Age: 47
• Residence: Wyoming, OH
• Profession: Physical education teacher, Brent and Cottonwood elementaries in Finneytown.
• Of note: One of her former students is Amanda Borden, member of '96 gold-medal gymnastics team.

Mike Sylvester
• Sport: Basketball
• Age: 52
• Residence: Loveland
• Profession: Corporate transportation manager, Victory Wholesale Grocers.
• Of note: Has dual citizenship with Italy; played for Italy in 1980 Games and took silver medal.

When she made the team but couldn't go, "It was heartbreaking," she said. "Every four years when the Olympics are hosted, all the old wounds come back up."

Tubbs was considered the Olympic heavyweight co-favorite with defending gold medallist Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba. But he said he couldn't afford to wait four more years for another Olympics and skipped the Trials.

Tubbs would win a share of the splintered world heavyweight championship in 1985, but he lost his first title defense and is now 43-10. He has suffered from drug addiction and is in prison a third time.

At the Ross Correctional Camp in Chillicothe, Tubbs said of the boycott, "I felt ripped off.

"You realize one thing: The Olympics is just like becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. It's almost bigger than the title."

For the Olympians, there were consolation prizes, including trips for competitions in other boycotting countries. All athletes went to the White House and received a gold medal from President Carter.

"We got wined and dined, paraded around - but everyone was really unhappy," McGrath said.

Bringing it home

Heartache lingers. But pride does, too. When the awakenings came, they were wonderful.

Carlisle avoided watching the '84 and '88 Olympics.

Then one day, in '89, riding in a New York City taxi, her driver told her he had been a banker in Afghanistan but had fled his war-torn land. Just then, they heard on a radio news bulletin that the Russians had finally pulled out of Afghanistan. Carlisle wept in the back seat.

"It was profound," she said. "Here was this man who was very accomplished, who had to leave his home country and drive a cab, and I was whining about not getting to go to the Olympics. It brought everything home."

McGrath felt reborn when she carried the Olympic torch through Cincinnati in '96, but even more so when she took her family to the Atlanta Games. Nissan sponsored a monument that listed the names of each U.S. athlete from every Olympics, providing tissue paper for tracing names.

"My kids would start with my name, then on the same paper get Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Magic Johnson. Let me tell you, we visited that site every day."

U.S. Swimming arranged a reunion of past Olympians at the 2000 Trials, and Mills said he attended reluctantly. Yet when the '80 team was introduced, the crowd stood and roared.

"It felt really good," Mills said. "It really made a big difference for us to have some kind of acceptance."

Enjoy the journey

All eight locals now speak fondly of their amateur days. Most traveled the world. Furlong cites an invaluable "cultural education."

Nearly all the athletes give motivational speeches about their experiences. A common theme is the discipline inherent in the pursuit they all undertook.

"Everything in my life is easy after that," Furlong said of the 31/2 years she spent training with the national team. "When you can survive that, and learn somebody will be there for you ... that's carried over in my dedication to my job and my family.

"We all got a ring - one of my teammates, Terry Place, designed it. I cherish that ring right behind my wedding ring. That's kind of my gold medal."

McGrath's daughter, Sarah, a sophomore-to-be at Sycamore High, plays volleyball on a Junior Olympic team that finished fifth nationally last month.

"What I've tried to pass on to my children is, whatever their passion, enjoy the experience - the journey, not the destination," McGrath said. "There were many times I could have celebrated the journey more."

After the boycott, Glenn Mills' father gave him a sign for his wall, on which he printed a quote from Jesse Owens: "It's not the Olympics that make the Olympian. It's the preparation."

After 24 years, that resonates still. For those who made the ultimate sacrifice, first before and then because of the boycott, the Olympic flame was never extinguished.

"We as athletes did everything we possibly could have," Mills said. "We lived as Olympians. The only thing we missed was that meet.

"You can't take away from us what we did."



Ryan Ernst contributed.

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