Memories of Moscow 1980: 40 Years On, Mary T. Meagher Recalls The Pain of Olympic Boycott

Mary T. Meagher Photo Courtesy: Tony Duffy

Mary T. Meagher was at an Atlanta Braves playoff game a few years back. Her husband, former speed skater Mike Plant, is an executive for the Braves and had set Meagher up in a VIP box for the game.

It also happened to be where proud Georgian and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter was due to sit. And in order to accommodate the former president and his security team, Meagher was asked if she could move her seat.

“Security came back and said, ‘I’m sorry, but we need to sit here. Could you find someplace else to sit?’” Mary T. Meagher told Wednesday.

“Well, the rest of the box was full, and as I was walking away, one of my neighbors said to me, ‘He screwed you again, didn’t he, Mare?’”

Meagher didn’t take the moment personally, but it was a fitting encounter between the two: Years earlier, it was Carter’s administration who decided for the United States Olympic Committee, in so many words, to boycott the 1980 Olympics, a decision that altered the careers of Meagher and many other athletes.

Upon the 40-year anniversary of those Games, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is looking to make amends. USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland this week effectively apologized to the 1980 Olympians who never got to compete in Moscow, and the USOPC is undertaking a greater reckoning with the history of that delegation, including interviews with athletes like Meagher.

With hindsight, it’s clear that the 1980 Olympic boycott, ostensibly for the Soviet Union’s military incursion in Afghanistan the year prior, was a hollow political gesture. Aided by the pressure Carter felt after narrowly surviving a Democratic primary fight, now unthinkable for a sitting president, and the electoral loss looming to Ronald Reagan, the boycott didn’t make any tangible difference in the Cold War. Instead, it altered the careers of countless athletes, including swimmers like Meagher, denied a chance to compete on the biggest stage in their sports.

Mary T. Meagher approached the 1980 Games as a 15-year-old prodigy. Known as “Madame Butterfly,” the Louisville native was the world’s best butterflier and would’ve been in line for three medals in Moscow. At the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials, held concurrently with the Olympics, she set the world record in the 200-meter butterfly and was more than a second quicker than Moscow Olympic champ Caren Metschuck in the 100 fly.

Meagher has found the silver linings in her career. One is marrying Plant, who she met through sports at the 1986 World University Games, where she won four gold medals and one silver. In the pool, her fly world records survived the East German onslaught of the 1980s and lasted well into the 1990s (some of the age-group marks have lasted into the last few years). Meagher would go on to win three gold medals at the 1984 Olympics and a bronze in Seoul in 1988, plus golds at the Pan Am Games, the World Championships and Pan Pacific Championships.

Still, she can’t help but think what she missed out on in 1980. Mary T. Meagher said:

“I was really bummed out. As a competitor, you just want the best in the world there, even though it would have made winning harder because I had started to struggle and I wasn’t feeling as in control. Luckily, with swimming, we can compare times. So at the end of the year, you could still say my time was the fastest in the world and I would have won – but you really just never know.”

Read the full interview with Mary T. Meagher here.

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Johnny Karnofsky
3 years ago

And her 40 year old times still place her among the FASTEST IN THE WORLD…..

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