Forty years ago, the United States boycotted an Olympic Games for the first and, to date, only time. This is the story behind President Jimmy Carter’s decision, and the lives it impacted.
Part 1: The saga of the 1980 boycott | Part 2: The lives forever changed
Their hearts sank in stages. Months before an Olympic summer, at tracks and pools across America, with July bookmarked on bedroom calendars, worry began to creep. It blindsided athletes at bars and parents’ houses; at airports and the Olympic Training Center; at news conferences and hotels; in locker rooms and at school.
They were among the world’s best, and yearned for a chance to prove it. So for years, they probed boundaries of human exertion. Some crawled out of bed before 5. Others worked past midnight. A few, every once in a while, would stand on chairs and shut their eyes. They’d see Olympic rings. They’d hear the anthem. They’d feel gold resting gently on their chest.
And then, in early spring, their lives froze.
In the age of coronavirus, it’s an all-too-familiar story. The 2020 Olympics, of course, have been postponed. Uncertainty and emptiness cloud the interim. For thousands of athletes worldwide, dream fulfillment is on hold.
These athletes, however, the ones you’ll soon read about, aren’t Tokyo hopefuls. You probably don’t even know their names.
They’re in their 50s and 60s now. But as COVID-19 swept the globe in March, their hearts sank again. As the pandemic canceled sports seasons and ended careers, empathy coursed through them. And with it came a spooky thought: I know exactly what today’s athletes are feeling.
Forty years ago, they were national champions and world record holders. They awoke every day to visions of Moscow 1980. Then the largest boycott in sporting history ripped the Games away.
They are 458 men and women whom the USOC recognizes as 1980 Olympians, but who didn’t compete at the 1980 Olympics. Yahoo Sports spoke with more than 100 of them over the past several months. As their minds labored back to dark moments, they fumed and sighed; reminisced and reflected; crusaded and cried. Most have recovered from the disappointment, anger, depression wrought by the boycott. Many learned from it. Others still struggle with what ifs and whys.
Each of their journeys is unique, propelled by different forces to different outcomes. One common theme consistently reappears. They, as a 1980 Olympic team, feel “forgotten,” cheated out of legacies and life-changing experiences. A few go so far as to say: “We don’t exist.”
Which is why most, though not all, were willing to sift through the memories and relive the grief. They want their story told.
So, here it is.
On a scorching summer day in 1972, a little before noon, a few miles off Puerto Rico’s south coast in the modest industrial town of Ponce, Jesús Vassallo bounded out of school in search of lunch. It was late-August. He had recently turned 11. He strolled up the road, into a nearby colmado, or mini-market. He strode past produce, toward the sandwich counter, into line. And he waited.
He was one of five siblings, all boys and eager athletes. Basketball and boxing enriched their early years. It was swimming, though, that brought the family together on afternoons and weekends at Club Deportivo. It was the water that became Jesús’ primary love. Which is why, in line at the colmado, when he peered over at a stack of newspapers, a picture and headline caught his eye. American swimmer Mark Spitz wins first gold medal, he read.
And as he did, a couple thousand miles away in Nashville, Tennessee, 9-year-old Tracy Caulkins sat in front of her TV, entranced. In suburban Buffalo, New York, 10-year-old Sue Walsh did too. All over, kids watched the Olympics and aspired. A few days later, Jesús returned to the mini-market and saw another headline: Spitz wins fifth gold medal.
And he said to himself: Wow. What would it be like to be that good?
The thought was so otherworldly. Over the next several years, it became less so. The family moved to Miami, where Jesús broke age-group swimming records. One day, in search of elite coaching, his father packed the family’s belongings into a car, four brothers crowded into the backseat, and they road-tripped west. Dad made sure to book hotels with pools. The brothers rose early before each day’s voyage and swam.
In Mission Viejo, California, they rose even earlier. Mom dropped them off at 5:20 for practice, then drove home. As they sliced through water, she cooked up ham, egg and cheese sandwiches. When their weary bodies emerged around 8, she was back with the homemade fuel as they scurried off to school. In afternoons, they returned to the pool for weight training and practice No. 2.
The 20,000-meter-per-day routine ate away at Jesús but hardened him. More records fell. The Olympics, at age 14, came into view. The Vassallos contacted Puerto Rico’s swimming federation. Jesse, as Anglos called him, would be its crown jewel.
“What do we have to do to compete for Puerto Rico at the 1976 Olympics?” the brothers asked.
“You can’t,” the federation told them. “You have to live in Puerto Rico.”
Instead, they made the short trip up the Californian coast to Long Beach for U.S. Olympic trials. For five days, they watched teammates and legends qualify for the Montreal Games. On the sixth, Jesse toed a block for the 1,500-meter freestyle final. He plunged in, tired, and finished sixth. He cried.
Upon returning home, his dad delivered a necessary reminder.
“You’re so young,” father told son. “Let’s get up tomorrow and start working.”
The following morning, Jesse sprung out of bed, out to the small backyard pool Dad had built, and into the water with dreams of 1980.
In 1978, Nancy Hogshead left home. First on weekends, then Fridays as well, then for good. She was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. She also happened to be a powerful athlete and an American record holder. So before she could drive, she moved away from family in Jacksonville, Florida, to nearby Gainesville, to chase the Moscow Olympics.
In Gainesville, swimming monopolized her life. Before sunrise, she hopped on her bike and pedaled to practice. After two hours and 400 laps, with stray mascara lingering under her eyes, she pulled pants and a sweatshirt over her swimsuit and hustled off to class. Hours later, she cycled back to the pool. She ran and lifted. Her coach would strap a belt to her waist – and to a series of pulleys. Her worn down limbs would splash ferociously into the water, pulling her in one direction. A basket of weights, on the other end of the pulley, pulled back.
This, in the late 70s, is what Olympic yearnings required. In Hamburg, New York, Sue Walsh doubled up on high school classes to graduate early and clear her 1980 schedule. At Auburn University, Rowdy Gaines’ formula was a light courseload, six grueling hours of swimming a day, six days a week. In Nashville, Tracy Caulkins’ route to dozens of national championships as a teenager was train, school, train, eat, sleep, train again. It had her in position to win six medals in Moscow.
In Bartow, Florida, Susie Thayer’s mom found a 25-meter pool at an old Air Force base and helped remodel it into a training hub. Susie would swim several miles every day. She’d pump out 200 pushups and 500 situps. Her body would tremble. She’d turn to weights, the ones she’d hand-made out of piping, concrete and rope. She’d crank them, and crank some more, until she physically couldn’t lift her arms to wash her hair. Every night, she’d flip open a journal and record her workouts, her times, her reps. She wrote down goals, too. One in particular was scrawled on journal pages and the training center wall: Make the Olympic team. On Dec. 23, 1979, when 17-year-old Susie and hundreds of other American athletes shut their eyes for the night, it was within reach.
On Dec. 24, 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and everything changed.
At 1 p.m. on Jan. 2, 1980, in an increasingly unsettled world, 12 men gathered around a table in Washington. Midway through a two-hour, 25-minute meeting, U.S National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski turned the room’s attention to a delicate subject. It was Item I.A.13.g of a State Department paper outlining potential responses to the Soviet invasion. Its listing in the table of contents was one word.
Ever since the Games’ modern inception, the U.S. had been present. Politicians wondered whether that should change. “Withdrawal from Summer Olympics in Moscow would be serious blow to Soviet international prestige,” the State Department wrote to the group. It warned that a boycott “would hurt American athletes far more than it would affect Soviet policies or actions.” But at the meeting, Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher presented new information: West Germany’s NATO representative had compared Moscow 1980 to Berlin 1936, which many believed had been propagandized by Hitler. In retrospect, the German rep felt the West should have boycotted those Games – and felt similarly about these ones.
The discussion bounced around the room, from press secretary to secretary of state, from pro to con. Christopher reminded his colleagues to consider athletes and their once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler noted the Olympics were a private entity, but that passports offered the government a mechanism of control. Vice President Walter Mondale said action against the Olympics could capture the imagination of the American public.
And at the head of the table, chills rippled down President Jimmy Carter’s spine.
Carter was conflicted, equivocal. Two days later, he faced a White House camera, and by extension the nation. “Although the United States would prefer not to withdraw from the Olympic Games scheduled in Moscow this summer,” he said toward the end of his address, “the Soviet Union must realize that its continued aggressive actions will endanger both the participation of athletes and the travel to Moscow by spectators who would normally wish to attend the Olympic Games.”
Over the coming weeks, a wide range of voices found Carter’s ears. A CIA study concluded that the impact of anti-Olympics action would be limited. Brzezinski told Carter otherwise. At Friday breakfast meetings on foreign policy, the administration crafted its stance and charted its course. On Jan. 18, with portraits of revered presidents staring down at him, Carter called the Olympics “the toughest question of all.”
On Jan. 20, he sat in front of a microphone and across from four journalists. NBC’s “Meet the Press” cameras rolled. Olympians sat in their living rooms watching. Uneasiness tinged Carter’s face. “Do you favor the U.S. participating in the Moscow Olympics?” NBC’s Bill Monroe asked.
“No,” Carter replied in a scripted tone. “Neither I nor the American people would support the sending of an American team to Moscow with Soviet invasion troops in Afghanistan. I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee spelling out my own position: That unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan, that the Olympic Games be moved from Moscow to an alternate site, or multiple sites, or postponed, or cancelled. If the Soviets do not withdraw their troops immediately from Afghanistan within a month, I would not support the sending of an American team to the Olympics.”
Sitting at home in Hamburg, her parents by her side, Sue Walsh stared at a TV in shock. Other athletes heard days later second-hand. Some read newspaper columns, many of which supported a boycott. Over 100 at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, released a statement pushing back. But there were no cell phones to buzz or internet to check. There were still pre-dawn alarms and 5:30 a.m. practices. Jesse Vassallo and Nancy Hogshead still heeded them and forged ahead. Day after day. Stroke after stroke.
Just about all of their peers did too, because the USOC told them to. On Jan. 7, it sent them a letter saying Carter’s initial comments had been “misinterpreted.” In late January, sports federations told Moscow hopefuls that “all pre-Olympic activities of the USOC and the National Governing Bodies [NGBs] are moving ahead on schedule.” The first paragraph of another USOC letter on Feb. 4 assured them “that neither has the President of the United States asked the USOC to consider withdrawing from the Games, nor has the USOC agreed to such action at this point, contrary to what you’ve been reading and hearing. WE WILL SELECT AN OLYMPIC TEAM.”
And we’ll keep training, most athletes thought, convinced that all the talk was mere posturing. Carter’s bluffing, they told themselves. Uncompromising coaches, optimism and naivete fueled denial.
The Carter administration, meanwhile, got to work. It formed a special Olympics task force within the State Department, and pressured foreign allies to fall in line. At the White House, Cutler, deputy counsel Joe Onek and domestic policy staffer Bob Berenson spearheaded the effort. They sought to operate on an Olympic world they “knew nothing” about. IOC leaders quickly scoffed at their proposals for relocation.
[Busbee: Muhammad Ali's misguided boycott mission]
With overwhelming and bipartisan Congressional backing, though, the White House began prodding the USOC. Publicly, president Robert Kane and executive director Don Miller trod carefully. They supported the administration’s views, but danced around suggestions of a boycott. In early February, Cutler and Onek flew to Lake Placid, New York, the site of the 1980 Winter Games, to push for more. Soon after their arrival, they met with Kane and other USOC leaders. When their demands met resistance, discussions became arguments. Tension became anger. Onek threatened to destroy the USOC if it didn’t comply. Kane left the meeting furious.
Despite next-day apologies, Carter’s henchmen pressed on. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opened the IOC’s 82nd session. He spared one welcoming sentence, then got to his point. “As we meet here tonight, the world faces a serious threat to peace, which raises an issue of fundamental importance to the Olympic movement,” he told Olympic leaders from around the world. “Let me make my government's position clear: We will oppose the participation of an American team in any Olympic Games in the capital of an invading nation.”
Silence swept the room when he finished. Some faces wore disgust. Days later, the IOC announced it was “unanimous that the Games must be held in Moscow as planned.” Emboldened, the USOC released a statement of its own, saying it “continues to urge Olympic hopefuls to go on with their dedicated training.” A week later, it followed up with a reminder: “Any decision regarding our non-participation in the Games rests with the USOC’s House of Delegates.”
As calendars flipped to March, and as American citizens reveled in the Miracle on Ice, a Summer Olympic invitation still sat idly on the USOC’s doorstep.
Some 100 American athletes soon received another type of invitation: to the White House, to meet the President. On March 21, they packed shoulder-to-shoulder into a humid East Room for what they assumed would be a town hall. Daylight filtered in through half-curtained windows. Grandiose chandeliers loomed overhead.
Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor, was first to greet them. Tapping a pointer stick to a map of the Middle East, he delivered what some athletes took as a “condescending geopolitical lesson.”
“Look, I went to college, you can use big words, Ziggy,” some thought. Others’ heads were spinning.
"Can anything at all happen now that will let us go?" one asked.
"We certainly will reconsider if the [Soviets depart Afghanistan],” Brzezinski replied, “but that seems very, very unlikely.”
Onek, the deputy counsel, then replaced him at the podium and outlined government plans for alternative, counter-Olympic games. As he prepared to take a question, doors swung open and Carter walked in. Nobody clapped. Reporters, expecting a standard presidential ovation, were astonished and framed it as a snub. Athletes, who two days earlier were in pools or on tracks, had no clue they’d done anything improper.
Carter then spoke and flattened spirits. “Ours is a nuclear age,” he said. “We have a much more serious prospect now even than existed back in 1936 when the Olympics were held in Berlin. It was serious then. In retrospect it's obvious. I met last week with the Minister President of Bavaria, in Western Germany. … He said if only the Olympics had not been held in Berlin in 1936 the course of history could have been different. We face a similar prospect now.
“The Olympics are important to the Soviet Union. They have made massive investments in buildings, equipment, propaganda. As has probably already been pointed out to you, they have passed out hundreds of thousands of copies of an official Soviet document saying that the decision of the world community to hold the Olympics in Moscow is an acknowledgement of approval of the foreign policy of the Soviet Union, and proof to the world that the Soviets' policy results in international peace.
“I can't say at this moment what other nations will not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Ours will not go. I say that not with any equivocation; the decision has been made.”
Athletes left stunned. They had come expecting dialogue. Instead they got a decree. The following day, they proposed an intermediate solution: Compete in Moscow, but shun all ceremonies. The White House immediately rejected it.
There were no compromises, no half-measures. “It is now clear that we will not be sending a team to Moscow in 1980,” one Athletes’ Advisory Council rep wrote in a letter to peers. The decisive USOC vote on participation remained three weeks away, on April 12. But some top White House officials assumed they had a deal. They assumed the USOC had conceded, and would vote to boycott. They assumed they’d won.
That is, until Berenson, the White House assistant, and Nelson Ledsky, head of the State Department’s Olympics task force, flew to Colorado Springs for a March 29 meeting of NGBs. Don Miller, the USOC executive director, led off the meeting. He mentioned that a group of Western European national Olympic committees had recently voted to defy their governments and go to Moscow. NGB leaders affirmed that their teams were training and would be prepared. When Ledsky and Berenson joined the discussion, it heated up. They detailed plans for alternative Olympics. The NGBs said no thanks.
Olympic officials left the room hopeful. Berenson and Ledsky, meanwhile, boarded their commercial flight home alarmed. As they cruised above Middle America, they drafted a memo to Christopher, the Deputy Secretary of State: The President is going to sustain one of the most embarrassing, humiliating defeats in the history of the presidency, they wrote. They’re going to vote to go to Moscow.
For months, the administration had rested on public opinion. Early polls showed three-fourths of the nation favored a boycott. How dare those selfish kids defy the President, Americans felt, and a minority of athletes agreed it was their duty.
But the public didn’t know about their three-a-days or their singular focus. A majority of athletes couldn’t fathom giving up the Olympics for an intangible purpose. Anita DeFrantz, a rower who led the resistance, received hate mail and death threats. They frightened her. Nevertheless, at a private meeting with State Department officials, she asked her most important question: “Can you promise me that one life will be saved or spared by us not competing?” They couldn’t, and her resolve strengthened. Carter had tried to woo the Olympic movement with discourse, but the Olympians were holding firm. Thus began the crackdown.
In late-March and early-April, the administration began pulling strings. It explored ways to block NBC’s next eight-figure payment to the Soviets. It phoned USOC corporate donors, and some $200,000 was allegedly withheld.
White House officials, in discussions with Congress, also compiled a list of penalties they could levy against the USOC if it voted to go to Moscow. Some – revoking its tax-exempt status, stripping it of federal land, amending its charter – were leaked to the media.
Cutler, the White House Counsel, even traveled to Chicago on April 4 for Jesse Owens’ funeral – less to pay tribute to the track legend, more to sit down with the USOC leaders, Miller and Kane. As Miller left the service at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, reporters stuck microphones in his face and asked about the leaked government threats. “Blatant blackmail,” he barked back.
And the threats weren’t all made deviously. Speaking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors on April 10, two days before the USOC vote, Carter said: “If legal actions are necessary to enforce the decision not to send a team to Moscow, then I will take those legal actions.”
That same day, speaking to the USOC’s administrative committee, Kane finally gave in. “If we decide to go, [Carter] is going to give it to us. We are going to lose our charter, lose our everything,” he said.
“We have no out.”
“We are licked.”
The following day, 21-year-old Rowdy Gaines swooped into a pool in Austin, Texas, and glided toward a U.S. national championship. He flip-turned once, then again, then a third time. He sped toward the wall, touched, and glanced up. He’d swum 200 meters in 1 minute and 49.16 seconds. Nobody in the documented history of humankind had ever gone faster.
Some 16 hours later, a hodgepodge group of administrators and veteran athletes gathered in Colorado Springs to decide whether Gaines would be allowed to go to the Olympics.
Early on the morning of April 12, they – the USOC’s House of Delegates – filed into a cavernous ballroom at the Antlers Hotel. Vice President Walter Mondale stepped to a podium as the first major speaker. He drew the parallels to Berlin 1936 that had keyed the administration’s rhetoric all along. He paid tribute to Owens, who’d won four golds at those Games – “but neither Jesse’s achievements in Berlin nor any words spoken at the Games prevented the Reich from exploiting the Olympics toward their own brutal ends,” he said.
As he spoke, a few athletes shook their heads.
But it was Bill Simon, the USOC’s treasurer, who many felt would swing the vote. The USOC administrative committee, fearing consequences, had come out in favor of boycotting. If Simon was on board, most delegates would be too. Simon spent the previous night in his hotel room scribbling away on a yellow legal pad, drafting and redrafting his speech in agony. Twelve hours later, he stood before an organization whose future rested on his words. He spoke for 20 minutes. He was torn, but eloquent and convincing.
“What we ought to decide here,” he said, “is not the legalese of various amendments, but an unequivocable vote of support for our country. And I suggest to you that if the route you wish to take is to vote to defy the President, you will be voting to destroy the United States Olympic Committee, the Olympic movement, and denying future generations of Americans the privilege and the honor of representing our country in future Olympic Games.
“Regardless of what side you come down on in this issue, the President has said that we aren’t going to Moscow. He has made that national-security determination, and it’s overwhelmingly supported by the American people. And, indeed, if there’s any who have a death wish and vote to defy the President, God help us.”
Delegates rose and applauded. Later in the afternoon, they marched to the front of the room and submitted their votes. Kane collected the slips of paper in an empty pitcher, then announced the outcome: 1,604 in favor of a boycott, 797 against.
Slowly, solemnly, the delegates filtered out, through double doors, past tear-stained faces and funereal stares. Athletes wandered, some aimlessly, some off to the airport, some in search of telephones to inform teammates.
Dozens of them, world-class competitors who’d circled July 19 on calendars, who’d been told four years earlier 1980 would be their moment, who’d slept on basement floors and quit jobs, who’d deferred school and delayed marriages, who’d endured abuse and broken records and pushed their bodies to untold limits, for hours everyday, with one irreplicable goal, never participated in their sports again.
In Austin, Rowdy Gaines simmered with anger. Nancy Hogshead’s soul sank to the bottom of a pool. Jesse Vassallo later threw his arms up in despair. The 4:50 a.m. wake-up calls, he soon realized, were futile. Throughout May and June, workouts came and went; Vassallo, quite often, stayed home.
In the face of disappointment, some athletes rebelled. DeFrantz and 25 other plaintiffs sued the USOC. Diver Greg Louganis explored his Greek ancestry, in search of dual citizenship. He couldn’t secure it, but if he had been able to compete under another flag, he would have.
Several teams looked into circumventing the boycott. The women’s rowing team perhaps came closest. DeFrantz got conditional approval from the IOC – if she could get approval from U.S. Rowing, which she couldn’t. Various athletes were in Europe at the time, a train ride away from Moscow. Some considered hopping aboard for an adventure. But they’d heard that the government might target their passports or visas. The warnings ultimately quelled their dissent.
[Eisenberg: The lone American who medaled in Moscow]
Instead, all who qualified at “trials” were invited to D.C. for a four-day fiesta. Most, though not all, attended. They partied at hotel pools, feasted and commiserated. When they arrived at the White House, they were ushered into line for a photo op with the President. Roughly half of them spurned him. One argued with parents on the South Lawn. Another cried, conflicted. Twenty-seven of the 30 female rowers who’d made the trip refused to shake Carter’s hand. They took off plaid Olympic-uniform tops to reveal shirts that read: “Jimmy Carter’s threat to national security.” They also wore stickers that informed anyone they came across: “I’m here to make sure this never happens again.”
The only sport not represented in D.C. that week was swimming. Officials decided a White House visit could wait. They rescheduled “trials” for a few days after the analogous races in Moscow. A scoreboard extension displayed Olympic times. The entire event was designed to motivate and prove superiority. Instead, it reminded some U.S. swimmers of what had been stolen.
Together, they had expected to win some 30 medals in Moscow. Instead, across all sports, the Soviet Union won a record-shattering 195. The boycott weakened many events. Sixty-five nations in total declined their Olympic invitations. But 80, including most European powers, competed. They arrived to find Moscow “considerably spruced up and dehumanized.” In athletic venues and away from them, the Soviets went to immeasurable lengths to put on a show for the West.
[Eisenberg: Controversy and propaganda at the 1980 Olympics]
Yet in America, nobody watched. Most reporters and tourists stayed home. The Olympics remained the Olympics, but NBC, under pressure from the government, did not broadcast them.
Athletes, meanwhile, confronted life. The optimistic teens among them figured 1984, with the Games coming to Los Angeles, would offer belated opportunity. Few, however, realized just how turbulent four years could be.
Part 1: The saga of the 1980 boycott | Part 2: The lives forever changed