He had pulled off a rare double – winning the 800 meter and 1,500 meter track finals at the 1979 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships – on the same day, with only 35 minutes in between finals. Don Paige, a student at Villanova University, was priming himself for a spot on Team USA for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But when President Jimmy Carter announced at the White House in March 21, 1980, in front of 100 American Olympic hopefuls, including Paige, the 23 year old was in shock.
Fortunately, Paige’s coach at Villanova was James “Jumbo” Elliott, and “Mr. Elliott,” as his track team called him, had a plan. As recounted in the book, Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, Paige’s coach laid out two plans:
Plan A: This plan assumed that the boycott wouldn’t happen. After all, the USOC had not yet declined the invitation to the Games. Paige would then win the indoor nationals in the 1000 meter, win the 800 in the outdoor season, earn a sixth NCAA title, place in the top three in the Olympic trials, and then march in the Opening Ceremonies in Moscow.
Plan B: This plan was taking control of what Paige could control – competitions he could enter. Assuming Team USA did not go to Moscow, Elliott said that Paige would win every 800 meter competition he entered that year, win the US Olympic trials, and run the fastest 800 in the world. Paige would also compete in Europe after the Olympics, gunning for Sebastian Coe, the world record holder in the 800 at the time.
At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 800-meter and 1,500 meter finals are now the stuff of Olympic legend. The British compatriots Coe and Steve Ovett were fierce rivals, with Coe setting world records in the 800 and Ovett in the 1500.
Coe was favored to win the 800 meters, but on July 26, 1980, he found himself boxed in by a couple of East Germans, had to fight his way through them, run wide, and kick his way to a silver medal, losing to Ovett. Coe said in this Guardian article that it “was just a f@%k-up from beginning to end”, and calls it “the very worst 800 meters of my 20-year career.”
Ovett was favored to win the 1500 meters, especially after his unexpected triumph in the 800. But on August 1, 1980, East Germany again impacted the outcome. Jurgen Staub set a fast pace. It was Coe, not Ovett that kept pace, in fact passing Straub, and wondering where Ovett was. Coe cracked the tape and won the 1500 meter, covering his face with his hands. His knees buckling, Coe fell to the track, his head touching the track surface for a moment before he raised himself for a victory lap.
Paige followed his coach’s plan. He won the 800-meter finals at the US Olympic trials on June 23, running a world best at the time of 1:44.53. And after the completion of the 1980 Olympics, he went to Europe. Fortunately, his friend had entered him that Spring in a track meet in Via Reggio in Italy, where Coe was scheduled to race on August 14, only 11 days after the end of the Moscow Games.
According to the book, Boycott, Paige was surprised to hear from officials that he had not been entered into the 800 meter competition. He pleaded with race officials. He pleaded directly with Peter Coe, the father of Sebastian Coe, but to no avail. Paige essentially demanded to be in the race, giving an ultimatum:
Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to warm up for the 800, take my sweats off, and go to the line,” recalls Paige. “You’re going to have to remove me from that line. When you do, I’m going to hold a press conference explaining to them how my good friend Marty Liquori entered me in this race months ago and you two wanted me out because you thought I might beat Sebastian Coe.”
According to Paige in this CNN article, he went to the starting line and no one asked him to leave. So he finally got his wish – a head to head with the Olympic champion. And with 300 meters to go, Paige was in the lead. “We come off the turn, 100m to go, stride for stride,” said Paige. “Fifty meters, 20 meters. Before the line I’m thinking, ‘God darn it, we are going to tie!’ ”
It wasn’t a tie. Paige beat Coe by two one-hundredths of a second.
The Debate and The Irony
Within teams that boycotted the Olympics, there is always speculation. Would Yasuhiro Yamashita of Japan have won gold in judo? Would Edwin Moses have continued his Olympic dominance in the 400 meter hurdles? Would Don Paige actually have defeated both Ovett and Coe at the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
Yes Paige defeated Coe in Italy. But one can argue that Coe had already peaked, while Paige trained to peak in Italy, as explained in this Let’s Run forum discussion:
Coe was exhausted after running several races post Olympics. Paige was geared up to meet Coe and edged him out by o.03. A one off race. Coe’s PB was 1.42, Paige’s best was 144.5. Paige may well have taken bronze in Moscow. Ovett beat Paige in 83 easily – in the year that Paige had set his 800M PB. Ovett was well past his peak in that race.
Coe also proved himself again at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 800 meters again, with Paige no where to be seen.
At the end of the day, Paige is realistic about his place in history. “I was No. 1 in the world, but Sebastian Coe was a better half-miler than me,” Paige said in 2010 in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. “I just beat him that day. There’s only one Olympics. That was just a great competition that I was fortunate to win.”
But he does hold out hope that the boycott had meaning. Paige was, perhaps ironically, an American athlete who supported President Carter’s decision to pull Team USA from the Moscow Games. In 2010, he wrote an article that explained why he supported the boycott, and explained this view to Track and Field News.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing in this world, and [Carter] had to make a tough decision which I’m sure crushed him when he had to make a stand worldwide . . . There will always be politics in sports, and I believe Jimmy Carter made the best decision he could at the time . . . I still say maybe because Don Paige did not go to the Olympics, maybe I spared one life in Afghanistan. And if I did, I sleep really well at night because of that. It makes me feel good and proud.
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 1: The American Boycott
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 2: The Comparison to 1936 Berlin
- The 1980 Moscow Olympics Part 3: Great Britain and the European Resistance
- 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?