Edwin Moses competes in the 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984.
It took a day or two for Edwin Moses to find out who won the men’s 400-meter hurdles at the Olympic Games Moscow 1980.
Since he couldn’t be in the race, Moses had little interest in the outcome.
East Germany’s Volker Beck claimed the Olympic gold medal – everyone thought Moses had in the bag if not for the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games.
“I had never even heard of that guy before,” Moses said. “I had never competed against him, nothing. He just came out of nowhere.”
Moses was the reigning Olympic champion and world record holder in the midst of an undefeated streak that eventually spanned nine years, nine months and nine days.
From 1977 to 1987, Moses won 122 consecutive races including 107 straight finals.
He recaptured the gold medal at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, added a bronze medal in 1988 in Seoul and is considered the greatest 400-meter hurdler of the 20th century.
But there’s a void on Moses’ resume where the 1980 Olympics should be, a gap in his extensive personal archive that holds every medal he has won, every uniform and start number he has worn, every souvenir he has collected as well as clippings, photos and letters of congratulations from around the world.
“I wish I could have had the 1980 Olympic gold medal under my belt,” said Moses. “Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.”
While he believes the decision to boycott was wrong, Moses said if Team USA had competed, “I think we would have gotten blown away with all the doping, just like we did in 1976.”
Soviet Home Field Advantage
Moses, who is the former chair of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, suspects the Soviets would have presented an uneven playing field amid the Cold War atmosphere.
“I think we would have had everything from food poisoning to wrong schedules to white noise,” Moses said, “and all the drug use that they were doing back then was completely unabated.”
Beck’s winning time of 48.70 seconds, the slowest at the Games since 1964, was “right about where I thought it would be,” said Moses, who clocked 47.90 at the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials in late June. He then beat his world record on July 3, clocking in at 47.13.
But Moses said there was no guarantee he would have defended his title.
“I probably would have won if I didn’t get food poisoning or something like that,” said Moses. “You can’t control it when they’re fixing it.”
But Moses at least wanted to try. The boycott robbed him of that opportunity.
Forty years later, Moses hopes Americans will recognize the 1980 Olympians for what they gave up because he said, “we paid a horrible price.”
“Here we are in an Olympic year, and it’s the team that was definitely forgotten and abused,” said Moses. “We were abused politically in the way that we didn’t get to go. And we weren’t really honored properly.”
The Moscow Olympics were still in progress when many U.S. Olympians visited Washington on July 30, 1980, and received what they were told were Congressional Gold Medals. President Jimmy Carter spoke on the steps of the Capitol.
“We had to go to the White House and submit ourselves to all that, wear the Levi’s hats and the cowboys boots,” Moses said of the Team USA apparel. “It was not what Olympians deserve.”
Moses took a photograph with the president, but it is not displayed on his wall. Instead, it’s buried in his files.
“I don’t remember what happened to be honest with you,” Moses said of the White House visit. “I think everyone was kind of depressed because we didn’t go.”
Deserving of Gold
He also believes the medal, which is inscribed “By Act of Congress,” should be replaced with one that is solid gold - which other honorees receive - not the “watered-down” gold-plated bronze medals given to the U.S. team.
In 2007, the clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives – thanks to the efforts of swimmers Dave Sims and Ron Neugent – officially added the 1980 Olympic team to the list of recipients of its highest and most distinguished civilian award.
“I think a lot of athletes, when they finally figured out that it wasn’t a real Congressional Gold Medal, were upset because they felt like they had gotten shafted again,” Moses said. “We didn’t even get the real thing. They sent us a letter years later where they designated it as a Congressional gold medal, but even by then some of the members of the team were dead.”
“They should strike a whole different set for the ‘80 team, to satisfy all of us, no matter how much money it takes, because the ‘80 team was just beat up,” said Moses.
They also received bronze medals from the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee which were made by Tiffany & Co., which had also produced the gold, silver and bronze award medals at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980.
When Moses first heard President Carter suggest a boycott to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he said, “The mantra then from the athletes was, ‘What does sports have to do with politics?’ Little did we know that today Olympic sports has a tremendous amount to do with politics, but the athletes thought it was a firewall back then.”
However, Moses had already experienced the effects of a boycott in 1976. His chief rival, John Akii-Bua of Uganda, the world record holder and defending Olympic champion in the 400 hurdles, was swept up in the protest of a New Zealand rugby team touring South Africa. All but two African nations were among the 29 countries boycotting in 1976.
Moses, a Morehouse College student competing in his first international meet at age 20, won in Montreal with a world record time of 47.64, defeating teammate Mike Shine by more than a second (48.69).
Different Fates for Olympians
Even though Moses missed the 1980 Olympics, he said, “I was lucky.”
Unlike more than 200 members of the 1980 team, Moses made it to the next Games. After lowering his world record to 47.02 in 1983, he easily won the 1984 U.S. Olympic Trials.
James Walker of Auburn University, who had been second in the 1980 trials, placed was fifth in his semifinal and did not advance to the finals. David Lee, who was third in 1980, scratched his first race.
In the 110-meter hurdles, world record holder Renaldo Nehemiah, wasn’t even on the entry list. He had quit track and field to play pro football.
“I feel bad for the people like Renaldo Nehemiah,” Moses said. “It’s a shame he never got a chance to go. He was at his peak at that time. Had he won a gold medal, he would have been a superstar going into the ’84 Games.”
Moses clocked 47.75 seconds in Los Angeles in 1984, with teammate Danny Harris taking the silver. Although the Soviets retaliated for the 1980 boycott by leading one of their own, that had no effect on the 400 hurdles.
After taking a year off, Moses came back for one more Games and one more medal.
“By not going to ’80, I definitely wanted to hang around after ’84,” said Moses.
The Soviet Union hung around Afghanistan until 1989, a year after Moses retired, making the 1980 Olympians question their sacrifice.
“It was all futile,” Moses said of the boycott. “It was all done for political reasons. It had nothing to do with sports, nothing to do with the Olympics. We as Olympians just got totally caught up in it.”
Museum and Town Hall Tributes
Moses is looking forward to the opening of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Museum in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where the 1980 team will be honored with a permanent display. Athletes have uploaded about 600 photos or stories on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook that will be archived and curated for the museum.
Moses, who is now 64 years old and living in Atlanta, said he began noticing how many of his 1980 teammates had passed away. That’s when he decided to host a virtual town hall to get them together for a discussion. Because the April event was soon after the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Moses invited current athletes to take part.
Moses said the town hall was “cathartic” for his teammates, who are dismayed that the IOC does not recognize them as Olympians.
“With the debate about whether the Olympics were going to go on in Tokyo, that’s when I started thinking there could be a connection,” said Moses. “There was a real story that the modern-day athletes needed to hear. They say, ‘Oh yeah, I heard something about the ’80 Olympic team boycott,’ but they have no knowledge whatsoever.”
“I just thought it was something that ought to be discussed to let them know that they aren’t the only ones that aren’t going to an Olympic Games. At this juncture, it’s a delay. They have no idea what it would be like to not have the opportunity to go at all.”
And he hopes they never have to find out.