The Moscow Boycott: A Toxic Mix of Sports and Politics Proved Costly for Hard-Working Athletes

Craig Beardsley
Craig Beardsley. Photo Courtesy: Swimming World Magazine.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. It was an Olympiad defined by politics, as the United States and more than 60 other countries took part in a boycott to protest the actions of the Soviet Union. The boycott was successful in one way: It damaged the dreams of hundreds of athletes. Below we run a piece from the January issue of Swimming World Magazine that examines what unfolded.

Moscow Boycott (From January Issue of Swimming World Magazine)

Years of hard work went unfulfilled. Dreams turned into nightmares. Sadness and anger abounded. The repercussions of the United States’ decision to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow were severe. This summer marks the 40th anniversary of what was a toxic mix of sports and politics.

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There was no proper reaction to the official announcement. The athletes, as was their right, reacted differently, and in fashions that were personally appropriate. Some immediately let the tears flow. Several instantly harbored intense anger. Others sat in disbelief, wondering how such a decision could be made.

An adage that sports and politics do not mix has been uttered for years. Fans want their athletes to play. They want touchdowns. They want goals. They want baskets. More, citizens don’t need their elected officials to infuse government policy into the games they follow. Yet, when President Jimmy Carter announced on March 21, 1980 that the United States would not send a delegation to that summer’s Olympics in Moscow, instead choosing to boycott the Games, sports and politics were pureed in the same blender.

Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter. Photo Courtesy: Biography.com

Upon the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Cold War tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the United States sizzled. For Carter, the invasion was an unacceptable overstep of force by the Soviets, and a move that called for a strong response. With Moscow set to be the focal point of the athletic world in the summer of 1980, Carter felt an American presence would legitimize the Soviet government and its actions. The consequence was an American boycott of the Olympic Games.

“It is absolutely imperative that we and other nations who believe in freedom and who believe in human rights and who believe in peace let our voices be heard in an absolutely clear way, and not add the imprimatur of approval to the Soviet Union and its government while they have 105,000 heavily armed invading forces in the freedom-loving and innocent and deeply religious country of Afghanistan,” Carter said.

In its decision to refrain from competing in the 22nd Olympiad, the United States was joined by more than 60 other nations. Still, what may have been deemed as the politically correct move left thousands of athletes, from swimming, track and field, gymnastics and beyond, emotionally crippled. While Carter may be known for his generosity wielding a hammer on behalf of Habitat for Humanity during his post-Oval Office days, the former president also used that tool – in a figurative sense – on athletes’ dreams.

Pain and Agony

With the 1980 Games on the horizon, the United States looked every bit prepared to continue its dominance. Despite the surge of East Germany, which was believed to be and later confirmed to be influenced by a systematic doping program, Team USA left the 1978 World Championships with a strut. Not only did the United States capture 20 of the 29 gold medals on offer, its 36 overall medals were 23 more than the Soviet Union managed for runnerup honors.

A year later, the roll continued at the Pan American Games, where the United States won all but one of the 29 events. In the process, the likes of Jesse Vassallo, Mary T. Meagher and Cynthia Woodhead set world records, their confidence boosted for the upcoming biggest moment of their careers. Of course, that eagerness to shine on the international stage was replaced by heartache and what-if questions.

Brian Goodell

Brian Goodell. Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse

For Brian Goodell, Moscow was supposed to be an opportunity to cement his distance legacy. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, a 17-year-old Goodell won the 400 freestyle and 1500 freestyle in world-record time and was a member of an American men’s squad that won all but one event and is considered the greatest team the sport has seen.

A second Olympiad offered Goodell the chance to repeat. Stronger and more mature, Goodell was at the peak of his career as he prepared for Moscow, and the American also yearned for the chance to clash with Vladimir Salnikov, a rising star from the Soviet Union who won world titles in the 400 free and 1500 free in 1978. But instead of a showdown with Salnikov, Goodell was left to watch the Soviet break his world record and become the first man in history to crack the 15-minute barrier in the 1500 freestyle. Left to wonder what could have been, Goodell still cannot reconcile Carter’s decision.

“I was 17 in Montreal,” Goodell once said. “In Moscow, I would have been 21 and in the prime of my career. And zippo. (Carter) screwed with everybody’s lives. I could have made some pretty good coin. It really did screw me up. It totally derailed me and changed my life. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My life took a totally different path than what I had expected. I was pretty clearly depressed. I couldn’t get up in the morning. Never got help, but I should have. I’ve tried to forget it a zillion times, but I’m still disgusted.”

While Goodell was looking to solidify his Olympic legacy, Vassallo and Craig Beardsley saw Moscow as the chance to make their initial Olympic imprints. A year before the 1980 Olympics, Beardsley throttled his competition in the 200 butterfly at the Pan American Games. With each meet, Beardsley was improving, to the point where an Olympic title was more likely than not.

Although the announcement of the boycott was devastating, Beardsley forged on with his career. He set his first world record in the summer of 1980, producing a time that would have won gold in Moscow by more than a second. A year later, Beardsley lowered his world record again, and a repeat of his Pan Am title followed in 1982. But at the 1984 Olympic Trials, Beardsley watched his Olympic dream vanish, as he finished third in the 200 butterfly. The effort left Beardsley off the team that would compete in Los Angeles.

“The lesson I learned from that was actually a very good life lesson,” Beardsley said. “Sometimes, you do everything in your power, you do everything you’re supposed to do, but sometimes things are just out of your control. You’ve got to learn to put that behind you, let it roll off your shoulders, and just move on.”

Move on was what Vassallo planned after the boycott robbed him of multiple medal opportunities. At the 1978 World Championships, Vassallo was a leading force, capturing gold in the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley, in addition to claiming silver in the 200 medley. At the 1979 Pan Am Games, Vassallo doubled in the medley events and was the silver medalist in the 200 backstroke.

Had Carter not implemented the boycott, Vassallo was in line to be a highly decorated Olympian. He let the president know that fact when he visited the White House, along with fellow boycott victims, after the 1980 Olympics concluded.

“(Carter) reached out to shake my hand and he said ‘How would you have done in Moscow?’” Vassallo recalled. “And I said, ‘I would have won two golds and a silver.’ And he just gave me this (pained) look. He didn’t ask anybody else that question.”

Jesse-Vassallo-1981

Jesse Vassallo. Photo Courtesy: Chris Georges

Vassallo sought redemption in 1984 and qualified for the Olympics in the 200 backstroke and 400 medley. By that time, however, Vassallo was beyond his peak years, and his ninth-place finish in the backstroke and fourth-place effort in the 400 IM left him short of the medal that would have been a near guarantee four years earlier.

“I kept swimming, but it wasn’t the same,” Vassallo said. “(1984) wasn’t a piece of cake. But I didn’t want to finish my career without being an Olympian.”

A Measure Of Redemption

The boycott of the 1980 Games can be categorized as a robbery of sorts. Yet, for some athletes, there was a sense of atonement. No, they never were fully repaid for what was lost in Carter’s decision, but they eventually realized a moment of Olympic glory atop the medals podium.

Tracy_Caulkins_1981

Photo Courtesy: Anefo / Antonisse, Marcel

In some eyes, Tracy Caulkins is viewed as the greatest female swimmer in history, her versatility spectacular in nature. At the 1978 World Championships, Caulkins was sensational, setting world records en route to victories in the 200 butterfly and both medley disciplines. More, she was the silver medalist in the 100 breaststroke and helped a pair of American relays prevail. The possibility of replicating those results certainly existed, until the boycott was announced. From that point, Caulkins was forced to look ahead to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. While she was not as dominant as she once was, Caulkins captured gold medals in the 200 medley and 400 medley and as a member of the 400 medley relay.

Still, there was lingering frustration over the boycott.

“What really hits home to me about the boycott was the Soviets didn’t pull out of Afghanistan for nine years,” Caulkins said. “Did it put any pressure on them? No. It was just a missed opportunity for many athletes. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

If there was a negative to Caulkins’ 1984 performance, it was found in the competition she faced in Los Angeles. In retaliation for the United States’ boycott of 1980, the Eastern Bloc nations – most notably East Germany and the Soviet Union – boycotted the 1984 Olympics, consequently weakening the fields across all sports.

Rowdy Gaines. Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse

From a medal-winning standpoint, Caulkins was accompanied by Rowdy Gaines and Mary T. Meagher as athletes whose 1980 injustice was somewhat assuaged. Gaines collected three gold medals in 1984, including the title in the 100 freestyle. As for Meagher, whose butterfly prowess was untouchable, she doubled in the 100 and 200 fly events and helped the United States to gold in the 400 medley relay.

“I felt physically at my peak in 1980 – and mentally up, too,” Gaines said. “It was tough, really tough. I had a chance for four golds. It was a long four years. There were a lot of peaks and valleys. I almost quit a few times. In fact, I actually did retire for six months in 1981 just after I finished college, but I couldn’t stay away. I felt something was missing in my life. I looked back and realized it was the Olympics. Just to get a chance to compete. It was tugging at me.”

Like many of her American teammates, Cynthia Woodhead (better known as Sippy) also felt the need to remain involved in the sport and chase Olympic glory. Woodhead was one of the best freestylers the world knew in the late 1970s, and the Moscow Games were supposed to be a shining moment. When she didn’t get the chance to race in Russia, her decision to forge ahead was admirable, but was not accompanied by the retention of her elite skills.

At the 1984 Games, Woodhead was not the same athlete who once ruled over the 200 freestyle. Although she was able to win a silver medal in her best event, her time was more than a second slower than her personal best. Additionally, Woodhead didn’t get the chance to race the 400 free or 800 free, events that once were staples of her program.

“It was awful,” Woodhead said. “Those four years (between Moscow and Los Angeles) felt like 10. It seemed like everything went wrong. But I felt I owed it to myself to compete in 1984, make the team, and actually go to an Olympics, so I pressed on. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t. It felt like I was watching a movie and wishing I could have been there in my top form, at my peak. It certainly wasn’t a highlight of my life.”

Retaliation at a Cost

Vladimir Salnikov. Photo Courtesy: Dutch National Archives

The injustices suffered by the American athletes due to President Carter’s decision were also experienced by Eastern Bloc athletes in 1984. In an act of retaliation against the United States for its boycott of 1980, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the Los Angeles Games. The move could be summed up in a simple statement: “You did it to us. We’ll do it to you.”

Among the athletes caught in this latest political web – like his American counterparts – was the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Salnikov. After capturing gold medals in the 400 free and 1500 free at the 1980 Games, Salnikov was expected to defend his crowns in 1984. Instead, he played the role of spectator and figured his Olympic days were over.

However, in similar fashion to several Americans, Salnikov couldn’t allow politics to end his Olympic career. At the 1988 Games in Seoul, and despite limited expectations, Salnikov won his second Olympic title in the 1500 freestyle. That evening, as Salnikov entered the dining hall in the Athletes’ Village, approximately 300 fellow Olympians gave the Soviet star a standing ovation for his achievement and perseverance.

“They (political leaders) used us as pawns in their game,” Salnikov said of the boycott which deprived him of a repeat opportunity in Los Angeles. “I was shocked when I heard about the boycott. I felt emptiness inside me. My first desire was to quit, but after I thought about it, I realized that would only made me feel even worse. And I kept training more intensely than ever before so I could not think of anything else. If I had won in Los Angeles, I probably would have retired soon thereafter. But I stayed in the sport and won in 1988 when almost everyone had given up on me.”

A Political Mess

Sports have the power to forge bonds. Individuals from different backgrounds and beliefs often come together and cheer for the same team, forgetting their differences. Nearly 40 years ago, however, sports were used in a way that tore at athletes’ dreams.

The boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games by the United States had a different impact on those who were affected. For some, the decision by President Carter served as an ultimate blow to Olympic dreams. Others qualified for the Games four years later, but not before their skills had diminished. Still more were fortunate to be strong enough in their events to claim medals they deeply desired.

As political pawns, the American Olympic hopefuls of 1980 were helpless. What they experienced at the hands of government officials can be considered nothing short of an inescapable checkmate.

17 comments

  1. avatar
    John

    A very enjoyable article, Mr. Lohn. Thank you!

  2. avatar
    KRW

    Matt Gribble. (RIP). Missed out on at least 2 medals.

    • avatar
      Scott Mershon

      Yes indeed. Matt was humble and one of a kind.

  3. avatar
    Tracey Holmes

    Fabulous article, John. You are a gifted writer and commentator.

  4. avatar
    John Lohn - Associate Editor-in-Chief

    Thank you Tracey. That means a lot from you. All the best.

  5. avatar
    David Marsh

    Thank you John- I remember when we heard the boycott plan at Auburn with Rowdy, Billy, Dave McCagg and the crew… it was devastating for all of us… nothing so far in our sport inspires like the Olympic dream.

  6. avatar
    Rick Theobald

    Of all the terrible decisions Carter made during his disastrous presidency this was one that the echoes are still ringing.

  7. avatar
    Sergii fesenko

    Hi guys
    I’m Sergii Fesenko
    Gold medalist Moscow 1980 – 200 fly
    And silver on 400 Im
    For me is very nice to read this article from John Lohn. We all from Soviet team 1980 meet American swimmers in Amersfort (Netherlands ) before two month to OG in Moscow and more talking about the political situation and about our Presidents, who has these designs.
    I would like you to know: We really were strong before beginning OG in Moscow. All team Soviet Union. And we were personally preparing to provide a fitting match for our opponents from different countries, especially for me personally from the USA.
    But after announced boycott from the the USA and other world countries – we stopped our hard training.
    And we really did lose interest in the Games.
    It is threw.
    You can ask any of my team-mates from the former Soviet Union team.
    We went from the swimming camp of our National team [letting go] of that training, we smoked, we drank hard alcohol.
    Without our competitors, there is no Competition!
    Believe me.

    My greetings to all my American acquaintances and friends.

    And – be happy.
    Our lives continue …
    [NB from the Editor – thanks to Sergii for this most-welcome comment. Parts of the comment have been edited for comprehension, the author informed]

    • avatar
      Sebastian

      Thank you, Sergii. Everyone suffered because of the boycott – even the athletes who competed. All my best to you.

  8. avatar
    Mark J

    Great article!
    Thank you!
    As a South African athlete, whose prime was between 1982 to 1987, I can commiserate. South Africa was banned from the Olympics due to apartheid from 1962 to 1992.
    Also, another great US athlete that comes to mind who suffered by not being able to swim in 1980, but who won in 1984, in WR time, is Steve Lundquist.

  9. Doug Schack

    Stupid decision. Athletes should have been sent in defiance and as a show of strength.

  10. Paul Robbins

    The only positive was that it allowed some UK athletes to gain medals. We could have gained more if the state sponsored doping East Germans hadn’t been there.

  11. Diane Pavelin

    Phelps might be the greatest Olympic athlete, but Caulkins was the greatest swimmer. Nobody’s come close to doing what she did-winning national championships and setting records in every stroke and IM.

  12. W Bruce Murray

    Remember vividly how bitter Glen Mills was for not getting to go to Moscow. Probably would have won gold in the 200 breast.

  13. Peter Scott

    1980 USA boycotts Moscow Olympics due to Soviet invasion of Afganistan. 1984 Soviets boycott the Olympics in retaliation………. fast forward to 2020 USA are the ones in Afganistan and have been since 2001…….18years

  14. avatar
    Sebastian

    One name which is hardly ever mentioned is Kim Linehan. Along with Tracy, T., and Sippy, Linehan was the other American who would have likely won two gold medals in the 400 and 800 freestyle. She held on for 1984, but was easy her peak and only placed 4th in the 400 free in Los Angeles. Her best times would have won double gold in Moscow and gold and silver in Los Angeles.

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