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Forty years ago, the United States boycotted an Olympic Games for the first and, to date, only time. This is the story of the actual 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and the plight of one man who believes the Soviets robbed him of a gold medal.
For a few exhilarating seconds, Ian Campbell believed he had won.
He thought he had claimed his first gold medal, shattered an Olympic record and dethroned a Soviet icon.
Campbell raised his left arm in triumph just after he hit the pit. Then he thrust his right arm in the air too after glancing down to confirm where he landed. Not until the 23-year-old Australian triple jumper began leaping up and down in excitement did he notice that a meet official had belatedly raised a red flag to signify a foul.
“It was a joke,” Campbell told Yahoo Sports. “When you watch the video, you can see the judge who is going to put the pin in the sand has a look of panic on his face. I’m assuming he didn’t know whether to measure my jump or not. He’s looking back, you could argue, for instruction.”
It was the third round of the men’s triple jump final at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and Campbell had begun to suspect a Soviet conspiracy. The judges kept throwing out the longest jumps by the two primary medal threats from other countries in an apparent effort to tilt the competition in favor of the Soviets.
Incredulous and irate after his massive third jump was red-flagged, Campbell inspected the takeoff board. He found no mark to indicate he overstepped the line. The chief judge then pointed to another official seated further down the runway. That official said that Campbell scraped his trail leg on the ground while entering the jump phase, an act that today is no longer a foul because it actually hinders a jumper.
Campbell’s only remaining recourse was to call for a referee from the governing body of world track and field. No IAAF referee interceded, and the meet officials raked over the sand pit despite Campbell’s protests, erasing all evidence of his potentially historic leap without even taking a measurement.
A staggering 9 of the 12 attempts from Campbell and Brazilian world record holder Joao de Oliveira were ruled fouls, including several that were well beyond the winning jump. That came from surprise champion Jaak Uudmae, who edged out fellow Soviet and three-time reigning gold medalist Viktor Saneyev, who settled for silver.
“The whole thing stank, absolutely stank,” John Boas, Campbell’s coach at the time, told Yahoo Sports. “It was obvious that if you fouled and you were a Soviet athlete, white flag. If you were the wrong athlete, red flag. I was absolutely furious when I left the stadium. I was probably naive, but I just couldn’t believe this sort of thing could go on.”
At the height of the Cold War, in their first Olympics on home soil, the Soviets were willing to go to great lengths to demonstrate their superiority. But did that extend to the field of play?
The Soviet Union takes center stage
Before swarms of tourists descended upon Moscow four decades ago, Soviet leaders first had to get their capital city ready for its close-up.
They tried to project an image of stability and prosperity by erecting new stadiums and hotels, repairing crumbling roads and lining streets with freshly planted flowers and trees.
Russia experienced severe shortages of meat and dairy products and fresh produce throughout 1980, but truckloads of extra supplies arrived in Moscow days before the Olympics began. Shops also suddenly began offering Western products that had previously been in short supply, from bottles of Pepsi and Fanta to Marlboro cigarettes.
Besides trying to hoodwink foreigners into thinking Moscow was always well stocked with food, the Soviets also took extraordinary measures to temporarily rid the city of prostitutes, homeless and other undesirables. They were “swept not just under the carpet, but into dustbins, carried out and deposited elsewhere,” George Plimpton wrote in Harper’s magazine in October 1980.
While the efforts to spruce up Moscow mirror Beijing’s war on smog in 2008 or Rio De Janeiro’s attempts to mask its polluted water and violent crime in 2016, the Soviets used the Olympics for more than just boosting national prestige. They portrayed Moscow’s selection as the host city as confirmation of the world’s approval of their foreign policy. They equated staging a first-class Olympics and dominating the medal count with proving the superiority of the socialist system.
The value of the Moscow Olympics as a Soviet propaganda tool was not lost on their Cold War adversaries in America. That’s why Jimmy Carter favored spoiling those Olympics as his retaliation for Soviet expansionism
On Jan. 2, 1980, just over a week after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter and 11 other men sat around a table in Washington discussing possible U.S. responses. In front of each of them was a State Department paper specifying three goals the U.S needed to accomplish:
The first is punitive: we want them to pay a price for infringing fundamental principles of international behavior. The second is coercive: we want them to withdraw their troops and allow Afghanistan to return to a semblance of sovereignty and neutrality. The third is deterrent: we want to prevent the Soviets from crossing further thresholds.
Next to that paragraph, Carter left a handwritten note: “1+3 inter-related … 2 unlikely.” In other words, the realistic goal of any action he took wasn’t the Soviets pulling out of Afghanistan. It was to punish their aggression and send a clear message that in the future such tactics would not be tolerated.
Two days after that meeting, Carter publicly hinted for the first time at the possibility of an Olympic boycott. By March 21, his position was bluntly clear. He told 100 past and prospective U.S. Olympians gathered at the White House, “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.”
Carter’s mistake was overestimating how many other countries he could strong-arm into joining the boycott. The absence of the U.S. and more than 60 other allies did make an impact, but the Olympics they missed proved more resilient than Carter expected.
Hoping to show that their Olympics would not be diminished by the boycott, the Soviets opened the Moscow Games with a dazzling burst of artistry unmatched by previous editions.
China, Japan, Canada and West Germany were part of the U.S.-led boycott. France and Italy competed in Moscow but shunned the Opening Ceremony. Other countries participated in the Opening Ceremony’s parade of nations under the Olympic flag, a form of protest that Russian TV deftly ignored by zooming in on the flag bearers.
Only once did the Soviet broadcast acknowledge the protests: When a solitary man carrying the Olympic flag emerged as Great Britain’s lone representative. A Soviet commentator declared, “There is the clumsy plot that you all can see, against the traditions of the Olympic movement." He later remarked that the protest was linked to the U.S. boycott, carried out by "nations that are in conflict with their governments."
Not even the government mouthpieces on Russian TV could deny the impact of the boycott on the medal count.
Without the presence of their U.S. rivals, the Soviets claimed 195 medals including a record 80 golds, a propagandist’s dream that no doubt had some Americans wondering if the decision not to compete had backfired. Eighty nations competed in Moscow and 36 took home medals, but nobody besides the Soviets and East Germans finished with more than 41.
The absence of the boycotting countries impacted each sport differently.
Largely unaffected was gymnastics, then a sport dominated by Eastern Bloc countries. Heavily affected were swimming and track and field, which missed the star power that Americans Edwin Moses, Rowdy Gaines and Evelyn Ashford could have provided.
The sport that suffered most may have been women’s field hockey, which lost its leading medal contenders to the boycott. Zimbabwe, a ragtag team hastily assembled to fill the gaps, claimed gold and provided one of the Olympics’ most charming underdog stories.
“The teams we were playing against were not that much better than us, and we started thinking, ‘There is a chance,’” Zimbabwe’s Trish Davies told Yahoo Sports.
“It was just wonderful to get up on the podium. We partied all night and I don’t think we stopped for months.”
The U.S.-led boycott changed the course of lives and deprived hundreds of athletes of their shot at a medal, but even those who did get to compete were affected.
Former Soviet rower Valery Kleshnev views his 1980 silver medal as “diminished” even though all of the top men’s quadruple sculls teams each competed. Anytime Kleshnev tells someone he won his medal at the 1980 Olympics, he says he “sees in their eyes that they don’t value it the same.”
“They think of it as a half Olympics, not a full Olympics,” Kleshnev told Yahoo Sports. “Nobody says it directly, and maybe it’s only in my head, but I don’t feel as proud of my medal as I would have. I’m not 100 percent proud — maybe only 50 percent.”
Kleshnev’s self-doubt reflects how the collision of politics and sport at the Moscow Olympics is still impacting the lives of athletes 40 years later.
Some bemoan never getting to compete for a medal. Others question if the medals they won measure up to those from other Olympics. And a few suspect that the Soviet Union’s zeal to show superiority through sport kept them from getting a fair shot at a medal at all.
‘You should have been the gold medalist’
At the end of the 1980 triple jump competition, minutes after both their quests to win gold ended in disappointment, the two alleged victims of a Soviet conspiracy commiserated with each other.
“You may have won it,” Campbell told de Oliveira. “Your jumps were huge.”
“No, no, I think you should have been the gold medalist,” Campbell recalls the Brazilian responding.
Watch some grainy 40-year-old clips of the triple jump final, and the only thing clear is that both de Oliveira and Campbell posted jumps that surpassed the gold medal-winning mark. It’s tougher to definitively answer which jumps were fouls and which were not.
Count the former coaches of Campbell and de Oliveira among those convinced the Soviets asked meet officials to manipulate the competition in favor of their countrymen. John Boas and Pedro Henrique De Toledo both believe the winner was supposed to be three-time Olympic champion Viktor Saneyev, the torchbearer who was trying to win a fourth gold medal on 34-year-old legs.
Jaak Uudmae, the Estonian who outshined Saneyev and won gold for the Soviets, doesn’t believe his victory was a product of a conspiracy. The Estonian suggested Campbell’s and de Oliveiera’s nine combined fouls could have been due to rapidly changing wind conditions.
“As an athlete, I was and I am still not aware of any foul play,” Uudmae told Yahoo Sports. “I personally do not believe that the officials were instructed to favor Soviet athletes.”
The triple jump was just one of a handful of track and field events marred by fervent accusations of Soviet cheating.
A Soviet gold medalist in the javelin faced complaints he should have been eliminated after fouling on his first three throws. Judges controversially ruled his third attempt landed tip-first instead of tail-first, allowing him to stay alive.
Pole vaulters alleged that Soviet judges would use their flags to signal the direction and strength of the wind to their countrymen. Discus and javelin throwers grumbled that only for the Soviets were the stadium gates opened to create favorable wind conditions.
A Cuban thrower allegedly received an unfavorable measurement on his final attempt in the discus competition. Luis Delis settled for bronze, 13 inches shy of the Soviet champion.
Those accusations of cheating remain difficult to prove, but the IAAF deserves blame for creating an environment that allowed them to bloom.
At previous Olympics, the IAAF, the international governing body for athletics, had always stationed red-coated members of its council on the field to observe the judging, a wise move since all the meet officials are from the host country. At the Moscow Olympics, IAAF president Adriaan Paulen reportedly removed the red coats after the first day of competition because the Soviets complained their meet officials felt insulted being watched over so closely.
Why would IAAF administrators have so blatantly acquiesced to the Russians? U.S. reporters in Moscow in 1980 speculated the Russians may have agreed to back Paulen’s bid for reelection the following year.
Boas has a simpler explanation.
“Bribery and corruption.”
The greatest tragedy of the triple jump controversy is its impact on de Oliveira. It contributed to a downward spiral for the charismatic man Brazilians nicknamed Joao do Polo, “Jumping John” in Portuguese.
De Oliveira, who survived extreme poverty and tuberculosis as a kid before shattering Saneyev’s world record in 1975, arrived in Moscow expecting to win gold. When he settled for bronze, it was bitterly disappointing and one of the only times his coach saw him cry.
“He looked like he had been knocked out,” Henrique De Toledo said. “He said, ‘It wasn't fair, it wasn't right, I didn't foul, I won.’”
For de Oliveira, the 1980 Olympics turned out to be one of his last major competitions. A drunk driver hit the car he was driving head-on the following year, and de Oliveira had to have his right leg amputated.
He served as a Brazilian assemblyman from 1986-1994 but suffered from financial woes, depression and alcoholism. He died in 1999 at a Sao Paulo hospital, where he had been admitted with liver and lung ailments.
“He would never forget what was done,” Henrique De Toledo said. “I never forgot either.”
For awhile, Campbell’s friends and family worried he might also venture down a dark path like Oliveira did.
Boas described Campbell as “absolutely devastated by what happened.” When the Australians returned from home Moscow, Boas admitted, “A number of us were really concerned about his psychological state.”
Things only got worse soon after Campbell returned to Washington State to finish his degree. At an indoor meet in Dallas, he suffered an ankle injury so severe it forced him to choose between undergoing high-risk surgery and premature retirement.
Campbell retired 18 months removed from the Moscow Games, destroying any hope of him earning a second shot at Olympic glory. He took a sports marketing job at Nike in October 1982 and later worked for the NBA and served as the CEO of an Australian Rules Football club.
“Nike, in a lot of ways, saved my rear end,” Campbell said. “Frankly, from a mental health point of view, had I not gotten that Nike job and been able to focus all that Olympic energy into my job, I think I probably would have struggled enormously.”
Despite all his professional success, the Moscow controversy gnawed at him for 35 years. Not until Athletics Australia chose to belatedly fight on his behalf did he start to have some closure.
A 2015 Victoria University study commissioned by Athletics Australia found no evidence of a foul on Campbell’s third attempt in Moscow and confirmed that the distance he jumped was roughly 15 centimeters beyond Uudmae’s gold medal-winning mark. Athletics Australia sent that report to the IAAF and asked them to retroactively award Campbell a gold medal.
The IAAF declined the request because it felt the footage sent by Athletics Australia wasn’t clear enough to ascertain whether Campbell’s foot scraped. The issue is now probably dead unless higher-quality video emerges or a Russian whistleblower comes forward.
“We’re hoping that one of the officials presiding over the event at the time will come forward,” said David Grace, the former president of Athletics Australia who oversaw the matter. “I know it’s 40 years ago and those officials would be quite elderly now, but it’s possible that one or more might still be alive and that someone might feel a conscience.”
Until then, Campbell takes solace in something IAAF president Seb Coe once said to him.
Recalled Campbell with a laugh, “He told me, ‘Ian, you’re better known for not winning the gold medal than if you’d ever won it.’
“Quite frankly, that’s probably true.”