US Boxing Team Perishes in Air Crash: The Dreams of Potential Moscow Olympians Die on a Warsaw Runway

memorial to 1980 US Boxing team to Poland'
Memorial to the US Boxing team who perished in Warsaw, Poland on March 14, 1980


On this day, March 14, 36 years ago, LOT Airlines 7 took off in New York City and crashed on the runway at a Warsaw, Poland domestic airport. Eighty-seven people, all passengers and crew, including 22 members of the US boxing team, died.

Possibility of a US boycott of the Moscow Olympics was in the air, but at that time members of this team were still hoping to make the Olympic team. One passenger, Lemuel Steeples of St Louis, was considered a strong medal contender for the 1980 Summer Games. On the whole though, many of these boxers were still in a developmental stage, these international competitions an opportunity to get them experience.

As then chairman of the AAU national boxing committee, Bob Surkein said in this New York Times article, “These were youngsters who never had a thing in life. All we can offer them is an international trip. They get the trip and something like this happens. They were just babies. I don’t know how we’re going to come out of it.”

As all plane crash stories inevitably have, there are people who for whatever reason were supposed to be on a doomed flight, but weren’t. One week before the LOT 7 plane crash, boxer Bobby Czyz was injured in a car accident, and thus did not go with the team to Poland.

Czyz (pronounced “chez”), who is of Polish ancestry and was born in Orange, New Jersey, went on to be a world light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion. After losing to heavyweight champion, Evander Holyfield, Czyz retired and became a successful television boxing analyst.

Czyz vs Holyfield
October 5, 1996 fight between Czyz and Holyfield


A few years ago, Czyz was interviewed by Boxing News 24 where he provided a very emotional reply to a question about how he felt when he heard about the LOT 7 crash.

“When I found out the plane crashed I’ll tell you exactly what I felt and what I thought. My father was a very brutal man. He was a tough disciplinarian. He called the house from his office and he said ‘Bob, remember that trip to Poland?’ I thought he was gonna rip into me because I’d gotten in a car accident. He said ‘Listen, they’re all dead. The plane crashed at 100% fatality’. When I say to you, a chill ran up my spine, I can’t even tell you, the feeling was so strange, I was physically shaking.”

Bobby then brings the factors of fate and religion into the situation. “It’s unimaginable that you were slated to be dead and that is an uncomfortable feeling, I was supposed to be dead. It’s never left me, certainly the severity of the moment has never changed but as time goes by, you don’t think about it as much. Whoever took my place is gone and I was literally slated to die.”

He continued “I’m not a religious person, my mom is very old school Catholic and when the plane crashed, she said to me, and I quote ‘Son, don’t you believe in God now? He let you get in a car accident and he saved your life.’ You mean he killed all of those people to make a point to me? That’s just bad Math. To this day, she still believes that’s what happened.”

memorial to 1980 US Boxing team to Poland 2Four years later, a statue dedicated to the US Boxing Team that perished in Warsaw was placed on the training grounds of the US Olympic team in Colorado Springs, Colorado. On that memorials are inscribed all the members of the team who died that day:

Kelvin D. Anderson, Elliott Chavis, Gary Tyrone Clayton, Walter Harris, Byron Lindsay, Andrea McCoy, Paul Palomino, Byron Payton, George Pimental, Chuck Robinson, David Rodriguez, Lemuel Steeples, Jerome Stewart, Lonnie Young, Joseph F. Bland, Colonel Bernard Callahan, John Radison, Junior Robles, Dr. Ray Wesson, Delores Wesson, and the coach Thomas “Sarge” Johnson