That almost apology for the 1980 Olympic boycott helps. A little.
By Matthew Futterman
The athletes who would have represented the United States at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow are an older crew now, two generations removed from missing what for some was a once-in-a-lifetime chance in the spotlight.
Some are retired or semiretired from their post-athletic careers. Some are grandparents. Life has happened. And yet no one in a position of authority has ever made a formal apology for what even President Jimmy Carter, who ordered the American boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has said was a mistake.
Olympic Games past and present are on a lot of minds this time of year, since the 2020 Tokyo Games would have been going on right now had they not been postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic. So on July 19, the 40th anniversary of the opening ceremony of the Moscow Games, the chief executive of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), Sarah Hirshland, posted a letter that came awfully close to an apology. In the letter, addressed to “the athletes of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team,” she wrote:
“It’s abundantly clear in hindsight that the decision to not send a team to Moscow had no impact on the global politics of the era and instead only harmed you — American athletes who had dedicated themselves to excellence and the chance to represent the United States.
“We can clearly state you deserved better. You deserved the support of an inspired nation, to be celebrated for representing our country with pride and excellence.”
Hirshland’s letter came three months after former Vice President Walter Mondale delivered a partial apology. “I think we did the right thing,” Mondale told The Wall Street Journal in April. “But I’m sorry about how it hurt them.”
The effect has been mixed. For some athletes, there was a degree of appreciation, but as Benn Fields, the U.S. champion in the high jump that year, put it, “It’s a little too late, 40 years later.”
That is not the fault of Hirshland, who has held her job for only two years. Also, the USOPC, which promoted the 1980 athletes recently on TeamUSA.org, considers them Olympians, though the International Olympic Committee does not.
The 1980 boycott was the result of several months of ultimatums and ultimately failed negotiations after Carter began to push hard for it early that year. The USOPC dared not defy the president, who tried to garner support from as many allies as possible. Ultimately dozens of countries, including Canada and West Germany, joined the boycott. But in the decades since, most international sports officials and many political leaders have fought to discourage Olympic boycotts, arguing they merely sacrifice an athlete’s right to compete and make a living, and don’t lead to changes in policy.
Some of the athletes did not see the Hirshland letter, which was posted on the USOPC website and Twitter, and also distributed by the organization’s alumni group. The 1980 athletes aren’t exactly the Twitter generation, and email databases are not always up to date. Regardless, it turns out 40 years has helped heal some scars, though only some.
“I haven’t seen the letter, and I’ve moved on from 1980,” Renaldo Nehemiah, 61, a former world record-holder in the 110-meter hurdles who was considered a favorite for a gold medal in Moscow, responded in a text message. “No words can change history. Fortunately, 1980 didn’t define me or my career.”
Nehemiah did not wait for 1984, deciding instead to pursue a career in the NFL at a time when the Olympics were basically an amateur-only affair and training four more years meant passing on earning income.
Others did wait. Steve Scott, who ran the mile, and Edwin Moses, the 400-meter hurdles champion, competed in 1984 and 1988. Tracy Caulkins picked up three gold medals in swimming in 1984. And yet even for those who got another chance, missing 1980 still sticks in their craw, and Hirshland’s letter was something of a salve.
The winning time in Moses’ absence in the event in Moscow was 48.70, more than a second slower than the winning time he ran in 1976.
“I could have done a cartwheel at the end of the race in 1980 and still won,” said Moses, 64, who also received a personal letter from Susanne Lyons, the chair of the USOPC, acknowledging the unfortunate decisions of 1980. “I appreciated that,” he said of the letter.
Fields, the high jumper, spent four years after his 1976 graduation from Seton Hall preparing for the 1980 Games. He was inches off the world record and thought he had a good chance to break it in Moscow and win a gold medal. He hoped to spin that fame into marketing opportunities.
Instead, he became one of more than 450 members of the American team to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed by Congress, at a ceremony held when the athletes should have been in Moscow preparing to compete. Because of financial restraints and the large number of medals needed, they were given gold-plated bronze medals.
Fields and other Olympians have heard the story of Jeff Blatnick, a wrestler, meeting the president on a plane and introducing himself as a 1980 Olympian. Blatnick said Carter told him the boycott was a bad decision.
Now Fields has Hirshland’s near-apology. His response to it was neither excitement nor exuberance. It wasn’t total disappointment, either, he said.
“At least they decided at an appropriate time to recognize us,” he said. “Now we are waiting for the real congressional medals.”