The only American to medal at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow

(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports illustration)

Forty years ago, the United States boycotted an Olympic Games for the first and, to date, only time. This is the story of the only American to medal at the 1980 Games in Moscow.

Part 1: The saga of the 1980 boycott | Part 2: The lives forever changed
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Framed in the basement of a former Dayton basketball player’s four-story condominium is a keepsake that no other American possesses.

It’s the silver medal he won four decades ago in Moscow at the Summer Olympics that the United States boycotted.

For Mike Sylvester, the decision to go to the 1980 Olympics wasn’t about drawing attention to himself or making a political statement. He defied Jimmy Carter’s order to boycott because he believed his livelihood was at stake.

Sylvester had made a living playing professional basketball in Italy since 1974. He wanted to remain there the rest of his career because he was more valuable to teams in Italy than others overseas.

Having Italian-born grandparents enabled Sylvester to claim dual citizenship and to not count against the foreign player quotas imposed on Italian teams. The Ohio native was undoubtedly the Italian league’s only domestic player to be drafted by the Detroit Pistons or to score 36 points against Bill Walton-era UCLA.

“Nothing against the Italians, but at the time most of them weren’t very good,” Sylvester told Yahoo Sports. “The game hadn’t become as international as it is now. It was usually a huge advantage for my team having me instead of another Italian.”

In 1979, the general manager of Sylvester’s team in Milan approached him with news. Italy’s basketball federation had invited Sylvester to be the first dual national to play for the country’s Olympic team — and hinted that there could be dire consequences if the 6-foot-6 wing refused.

“They made it clear to my general manager that if I didn’t say yes, I could be disqualified from playing in the Italian league,” Sylvester said. “That made it simple for me. I didn’t want to end my career right then, so I said, ‘Yup, I’ll play.’”

At first, Sylvester was fine with the coercion. The opportunity to play on the Olympic stage and try to take home a medal trumped any discomfort he felt serving as a mercenary for a country he first visited at age 22.

Everything changed in early 1980 when Jimmy Carter responded to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan by threatening not to send any American athletes to Moscow. Only then did Sylvester first realize he might be forced to choose between his birth country and his second home.

Mike Sylvester is the only American to have medaled at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. (Photos courtesy of Mike Sylvester)
Mike Sylvester is the only American to have medaled at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. (Photos courtesy of Mike Sylvester)

Country vs. Livelihood

The uncomfortable decision that Sylvester dreaded arrived sooner than he hoped.

On March 21, 1980, Carter informed American athletes and coaches that he had decided the U.S. would boycott the upcoming Olympic Games. The next day, Italy declared support for the boycott but did not join, opting to send a full contingent of athletes to Moscow.

Unsure what to do, Sylvester splurged on an international call from Italy to his father in Ohio. He explained the situation and asked for advice.

Sylvester recalls his dad reaching out to the U.S. state department, asking if it would be a problem if he played for Italy and explaining that his career could be in jeopardy if he didn’t. Whoever Sylvester’s dad spoke with eventually called back and said, “We’re not thrilled about it, but go ahead and do it. We’re not going to ruin his career over it.”

Once Sylvester had permission, that made his decision easy. He wasn’t interested in politics. He didn’t believe an American boycott could influence Soviet foreign policy. He saw no reason to risk Italy booting him from their league, nor could he pass up the chance to fulfill a boyhood dream of becoming an Olympian.

“It was too incredible an opportunity,” Sylvester said. “I had to take advantage of it.”

While Sylvester doesn’t recall receiving flack from friends and family in Ohio for his decision to participate in the Moscow Olympics, his presence on the Italian national team initially angered some of his new teammates. Sylvester described them as “100 percent against me joining the team” because they believed his spot should have gone to a native Italian.

Sylvester won over his new teammates in Geneva in May 1980 by helping Italy qualify for the Olympics with ease. He averaged a team-high 18.1 points during qualifying, raising hope that he could help spearhead a medal push in Moscow.

“The guys on the team changed their attitude pretty quickly,” Sylvester said. “They saw I might be able to help them do something historic.”

It wasn’t lost on Sylvester that the absence of his American countrymen boosted Italy’s hopes of a top-three finish. Carter’s controversial boycott may have destroyed the medal hopes of hundreds of U.S. athletes, but for one Moscow-bound American, it was a “big favor.”

An American in Moscow

The most surprising part of the Olympics for Sylvester was the media entourage that followed him wherever he went.

Reporters from Sports Illustrated, NBC and the Washington Post all wanted to tell the story of one of the only Americans competing.

The American presence in Moscow was small — athletes with dual citizenship like Sylvester or coaches hired by foreign teams. There was Bill Rea, a Pittsburgh dentist who chose to represent his native Austria in the long jump after narrowly missing the U.S. team in 1972 and 1976. And Wayne Brabender, a Minnesotan who sought Spanish citizenship a decade earlier after signing with Real Madrid after college. And Mike Perry, a highly successful former junior college basketball coach who guided Sweden to the Olympics.

It was always ironic to Sylvester that he received so much attention for being American during the Olympics. Never did he connect with his Italian roots more than when he was in Moscow trying to help capture the country’s first men’s basketball medal.

Fighting through a sprained ankle he suffered during Italy’s final qualification game in Geneva, Sylvester averaged less than nine points during the Olympics and took a backseat to co-stars Renato Villalta and Dino Meneghin. Even so, Italy massively exceeded expectations, winning its group and upsetting the pre-tournament favorite Soviet Union in the semifinal round before getting a crack at formidable Yugoslavia in the gold-medal match.

“We couldn’t believe what was happening,” Sylvester said. “The Italians were going to play for a gold medal. At the time, the best teams in European basketball were always the Russians and the Yugoslavians. They were head and shoulders above everyone else.”

In the gold medal match, Yugoslavia proved too much. Sylvester tallied only two points in 21 minutes and Italy lost by nine.

The disappointing finale didn’t detract from Sylvester’s Olympic experience. He began his journey a hired gun and ended it with a historic silver medal and lifelong friends.

“When we were up on that podium, it was a really special moment,” Sylvester said. “I ceased feeling like a mercenary and started feeling like just an Italian basketball player. I guess you could say at that point I felt like I really belonged.”

A throng of fans greeted the Italian players at the airport when they returned to Rome the day after the gold medal match. A few weeks later, Italian president Sandro Pertini brought every player back to Rome again to become Knights of the Republic.

Sylvester played 17 seasons of professional basketball in Italy before returning to his native Ohio. Framed in the basement of his four-story condominium is his silver medal as well as other pieces of Olympic memorabilia.

To Americans, Sylvester will always be best known as the answer to a trivia question, but he does not see himself that way.

“When I look back, there’s great satisfaction, not so much at being the only American to win a medal that year, but at being part of the first Italian team to ever win a medal,” he said. “We went through such an incredible journey together. It was really gratifying.”

Part 1: The saga of the 1980 boycott | Part 2: The lives forever changed

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