Andras Toro was adamant. And he brought a badge to show – “We Will GO!”
Toro, a 4-time Olympian and member of the USOC’s Athletes Sub-Committee, was at the Antlers Hotel on April 12, 1980, the date that the United States Olympic Committee’s House of Delegates would vote on whether American athletes would accept the invitation to the 1980 Moscow Olympics or now.
The debate in the media over the previous three months had been intense, with much of the public in alignment with President Jimmy Carter and his intent to have America boycott the Olympics. To ensure that the USOC delegates heard Carter’s message, the White House insisted that Vice President Walter Mondale be allowed to address the USOC, to ensure the Carter administration had the final word before the vote.
Mondale explained what questions he believed were before the delegates and which ones were not.
The Vice President said that it was not a question of “denying our Olympic team the honor they deserve; for the American people, as you know, deeply respect the sacrifice we are asking our athletes to make.” He said that it was not “a question of whether participation in the Moscow Olympics confers legitimacy on Soviet aggression. When the Communist Party prints a million handbooks to tell its top activists that the Summer Games mean world respect for Soviet foreign policy, surely that issue is behind us.”
And he said it was not “a question of drawing a line between sports and politics,” and went on to explain the trade offs of the Soviet investment in their PR machine over domestic needs and the need to quiet the voices of dissidents.
Mondale then turned to history – to the United States decision to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which he said was a mistake. He quoted an American member of the IOC, Ernest Jahncke, at the time who said, “If our committee permits the games to be held in Germany, there will be nothing left to distinguish [the Olympic idea] from the Nazi ideal. It will take years to reestablish the prestige of the games and the confidence of the peoples of the world.”
Mondale went on to explain that there was no boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, stating that the “reasons for the rejection are bone chilling.”
Do not drag sports into the arena of politics, they were told. It will destroy the Olympic movement, they were told. It will only penalize our American athletes, they were told. Solutions to political problems are not the responsibility of sporting bodies, they were told. Let us take our Jews and blacks to Berlin and beat the Nazis, they were told. If America refuses to go, we will be the only ones left out in the cold, they were told.
In the end, the USOC voted on a ratio of 2 to 1 to support the boycott. Jan Palchikoff, a rower selected to participate on Team USA in Moscow, was at the Olympic Team selection camp when she heard the news. She was devastated, but she was not surprised.
The USOC House of Delegates were made up a very broad group of sports stakeholders that includes national governing boards of sports federations, multi-sport organizations, state Olympic organizations that raise funds, athletes, IOC members as well as members of the public. Athletes made up a number of the 3,300 plus members, but the House of Delegates were dominated by non-athletes.
Palchikoff said that the USOC leadership itself was essentially a volunteer organization, that were not necessarily poised to take on the US Government and the President of the United States. “The USOC was not particularly good at telling the athletes’ story. They weren’t equipped to play ball with the government.”
American sprinter Ollan Cassell was a gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and in 1980, was the executive director of The Athletic Congress (TAC), which was America’s track and field federation. He wrote in his book, Inside the Five Ring Circus, that he disagreed with Mondale about the impact that America’s participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics had.
The President and Vice President both compared the 1980 situation with 1936 Berlin. “We saw what happened in 1936 when the United States sent athletes to Berlin,” Mondale said. “Hitler said it to his advantage. We can’t let that happen.” Did our top political leaders get all their Berlin Olympic history from Leni Riefenstahl?
I can’t fathom Olympic history without Jesse Owens…or his fellow African American Olympic medalists: Cornelius Johnson, John Woodruff, Archie Williams, Ralph Metcalfe, Mack Robinson, Dave Albritton, James “Jimmy” LuValle and Fritz Pollard. It was a seminal event for African-American athletes, and an “in your face” to Hitler’s crazy and convoluted concept of “Aryan supremacy.”
In the end, the Americans didn’t go. Andras Toro never got to see how effective an Olympic coach he could be. Jan Palchikoff never saw the payoff to years of hard training, essentially self financed. American track legends Edwin Moses and Renaldo Nehemiah never got their “in your face” moment.
Mondale said, “we recognize the enormous price we are asking our athletes to pay, and, above all, to recognize the true heroism of our athletes who do not go to Moscow.”
So many of Americans selected for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, forced to stay home, likely did not see this boycott as the better part of valor.
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 1: The American Boycott
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 3: Great Britain and the European Resistance
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 4: Don Paige vs Sebastian Coe
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 5: The Japan That Could Not Say No
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 6: Lord Killanin vs Avery Brundage vs Juan Antonio Samaranch – Would Stronger IOC Leadership Have Made a Difference?
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