Edwin Moses competes at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984 in the men's 400-meter hurdles in Los Angeles.
Forty years have passed since American athletes were held out of the Olympic Games Moscow 1980 due to a boycott.
The memories are still fresh.
“We knew the future was ours and everything came to a screeching halt,” Anita DeFrantz, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team and longtime International Olympic Committee member, said Tuesday night during a virtual town hall that both remembered the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team and allowed members of that team to share their stories with the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team.
“I know it broke my heart when we didn’t go to Moscow,” said Donna de Varona, a swimmer on the 1960 and 1964 Olympic teams who went on to serve as the first president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. “It was such a political decision. It just comes back to you all the time and makes you so angry.”
Fast forward to 2020, and the coronavirus pandemic has placed a new generation of U.S. athletes in a similar position. Instead of completely losing an Olympic Games, the athletes of 2020 have seen the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 pushed back to a July 2021 start.
The pandemic has thus far resulted in 3.1 million confirmed cases and 217,000 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Sporting events worldwide have come to a halt.
Edwin Moses, a 1976 and 1984 Olympic gold medalist in the 400-meter hurdles, was the host for the live video presentation, which was broadcast to the public on Zoom and Facebook. The event also featured DeFrantz, a 1976 Olympic rowing bronze medalist; de Varona, a three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming; Rita Buck-Crockett, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist in volleyball and member of the 1980 team; Kerri Walsh Jennings, a three-time Olympic champion in beach volleyball; Lee Kemp, a three-time world champion in wrestling and a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team; Kaleigh Gilchrist, a 2016 Olympic gold medalist in water polo; Benn Fields, an American high jumper who had made the 1980 Olympic Team; Greg Louganis, a five-time Olympic medalist in diving and a member of the 1980 team; Lauryn Williams, an Olympic medalist in both track and field and bobsled; Chris Liedel and Michelle Dusserre of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum; and Leslie Klein, a 1980 and 1984 Olympic kayaker and director of the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s Athlete Career & Education program.
Moses was hopeful the livestream would honor and remember those who were on the 1980 Olympic team and didn’t get to compete, and show how that situation translates to 2020.
“We all have a good sense of how the world has changed in general over the last few months, not to mention how it has changed the world of sports,” Moses said. “The whole sports world, including the Olympic Games plans for Tokyo. How do we deal with this?”
Buck-Crockett remembers participating in a pre-Olympic tour in 1980 with the women’s volleyball team and then being told there would no Olympic Games for American athletes.
“You leave your school, you leave your family, you leave everything,” she said. “All of a sudden, you get off a plane and you’re not going to the Olympics. It was devastating.”
More than 450 athletes qualified for the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, roughly half of whom never competed at a Games either before or after.
“I hung around for another four years, but my motivation wasn’t the same,” said Fields, who Moses identified as a gold-medal contender in 1980.
“It was absolutely awful,” Kemp said. “We could never get back 1980.”
Buck-Crockett played in 1984 with some of her 1980 teammates. Others were gone.
“Some trained for eight years (leading up to 1980), they can’t do four more,” Buck-Crockett said.
After President Jimmy Carter called for a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, DeFrantz had a question that couldn’t be answered at the highest levels of U.S. government: Would the boycott save any lives?
In 2020, with all corners of the globe battling a deadly virus, she knows the answer to that question has shifted.
“We know a lot of lives will be saved,” DeFrantz said.
“You are saving lives by not going to the Olympics this year,” Buck-Crockett said. “You’re going to save a million lives. When we boycotted, we didn’t save one life.”
Moses, who had a son living in Spain come down with COVID-19 and recover successfully, had some advice for the 2020-turned-2021 Olympic hopefuls.
“I think they should not concentrate on what’s going on politically,” he said. “You’re not going to be able to stay in shape for 15 months.”
“Let’s learn from these warriors,” Walsh Jennings said of the 1980 team. “It’s our duty to make the best of this.”
In the meantime, preparations for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado, are continuing, and the facility — which is scheduled to open this summer — will feature a permanent exhibit on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team, CEO Liedel said.
So far, Liedel said, 12,154 U.S. athletes are represented in the museum.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.