Superhero Movie

Superheroes often emerge from intense pain and suffering, according to their origin stories.

Jean-Baptiste Alaize was three years old when he witnessed the slaughter of his Tutsi mother at the hands of Hutus during the Burundi Civil War, and he himself fell to four machete blows that resulted in the loss of a leg.

Bebe Vio was eleven years old when she fell in a coma induced by a battle with meningitis, a condition akin to “imploding inside.” A budding fencing star and a ball of energy, the Italian pre-teen had to make the horrible decision to amputate both arms and legs to thwart the advance of the disease.

Tatyana McFadden was born in the Soviet Union with a congenital disorder which paralyzed her from the waist down at birth, in a country that did not officially recognize the existence of disabled people.

However, these three and many others profiled in a recently released Netflix documentary found redemption and achievement in sport. The film, Rising Phoenix, is an impassioned introduction to the Paralympic movement. Layering on top of the powerful theme of Channel 4’s marketing of the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Paralympics – We’re the Superhumans! – Rising Phoenix gives Para athletes the Hollywood superhero treatment.

The production values of Rising Phoenix can be described as lavish. Aussie swimmer Ellie Cole is shot dancing under water, rays of light piercing the dark waters. Alaize sits open and relaxed on a spacious couch in an ornate French Baroque setting. South African sprinter Ntandu Mahlangu is interviewed with an actual cheetah in repose at his own cheetah blades. And Vio is filmed lovingly in slow motion, strapped to a wheelchair, lunging and gyrating to angelic music.

And yet when it comes to recognizing the disabled, Rising Phoenix is the exception. Every superhero has a weakness. For Superman, it is kryptonite. For Para athletes, and people with disabilities, it is apathy.

Rising Phoenix is a tale of Two Paralympics, nearly the best of times and the worst of times for the paramount global event for athletes with disabilities. The 2012 London Paralympics were a triumph of the organizers, an event that packed the stadiums and arenas, energized a city, and inspired the world. The 2016 Rio Olympics, as we learn in the film, nearly ended the Paralympic movement.

Rising Rio

Seven weeks before the start of the 2016 Rio Paralympics, then president of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. Andrew Parsons was given terrible news by the Rio 2016 Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games – they did not have enough money to run the Paralympic Games.

“Fµ©≤ing hell,” said Sir Philip Craven, then president of the International Paralympic Committee. “There was no money.”

“They are not telling you, we can do that, or we can do that,” said Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of the IPC at that time. “They are telling you we cannot organize the games. I couldn’t at that moment see how we could fix it. And that was scary.”

And as potential Rio Paralympians began to understand that the rumors were true, they had that sinking, familiar feeling from childhood, their teenage years, and still today: unfairness, humiliation, helplessness. Said two-time T-44 men’s 100-meter sprint champion, Jonnie Peacock of Team GB, “you just feel like these people don’t view the Paralympics as anything.”

Parsons explained in exasperation how he could not give clear answers to the national Paralympic committees who worried whether the Games would happen or not. But he and the filmmakers were explicit in explaining who was to blame. Speaking over images of the Rio Olympic Organizing Committee, including chairman Carlos Nuzman, who was subsequently arrested for corruption and bribery, Parsons said, “forget about these guys, the leadership, because they won’t help.”

Rising Phoenix goes on to tell the nail-biting story of how IPC leadership, Parsons, Craven and Gonzalez, convinced the Brazilian government and skeptical authorities to keep this dream alive not only for over 4,300 Para athletes, but also for 24 million persons of disability in Brazil.

The 2012 London Paralympics is held up as the gold standard for awakening the world to the incredible athletic abilities of Para athletes. But it is the 2016 Rio Paralympics that may have saved the movement. Said Craven, “We’d have really broken the cycle. Confidence wouldn’t have been there in the future. It would (have been) the extinguishing of that Paralympic flame.”

Changing the World

Instead, the flame burns brightly today. Rising Phoenix brings alive the power of the movement, and the dreams of these superheroes.

  • The incredible story of the movement’s founder, Ludwig Guttman
  • The reunification of mother and child as summer Paralympian, Tatyana McFadden wins cross-country silver in the Winter Paralympics in her country of birth, Russia.
  • The dramatic and stirring gold medal victory of ebullient Bebe Vio in wheelchair fencing, who carries you on her shoulders in waves of joy.

“No one stays the same after watching the movie,” said Parsons in a recent interview with 20 foreign chambers of commerce in Japan. “If ten people watch the movie, ten people will be changed. If ten million people watch the movie, ten million people will be changed. I want the entire world to watch this movie.”

So do I.

Note: All film poster images shared with permission of the IPC.

Dicki + Camera
Dick Lyon and his Bronica.

The photographer’s eye was keen, often captured by the person at work.

  • The woman shining shoes in front of a bank.
  • The man patching up the entrance of an old lady’s abode.
  • A man on his bike after making deliveries.
  • The proprietors of a tea house.
  • Men and women of the office entering a busy train station after a day’s work.

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Dick Lyon was in Japan for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and bought a Bronica camera. In his quiet walks around the Olympic Village, he was drawn to the working person, which might not come as a surprise to those who knew him.

“For work ethic, no one topped Dick, ever,” said Kent Mitchell, two-time Olympian, who won gold with Ed Ferry and Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “Meticulous in everything was his mantra. For years I have kept a copy of Dick’s daily handwritten workout logs in my briefcase wherever I go. I don’t know why I carry it around. It exhausts me even to read it. I can’t imagine what Dick and Larry went through to do all those things day after day.”

Mitchell recalled that Lyon and his partner in the coxless pairs, Larry Hough, would get in shape for the 1972 Munich Olympics by running up and down stadium steps. “In 1972, he and his pair partner, Larry Hough, in their run up to the 1972 Munich Olympics in a two-man boat, both set records for running up and down ten sets of 88 stairs in Stanford’s Football Stadium. Their record still stands.”

“Pound for pound toughest oarsman I know,” said Ed Ferry, who won gold with Conn Findlay in the coxed pair at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

Lyon, a native of San Fernando, California, was a rower at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Along with his teammates  Ted Nash, Phil Durbrow, Geoff Picard and Theo Mittet, his boat won the bronze medal in the coxless fours competition, in dramatic fashion.

06c-1964 Tokyo medalists 001
Theo Mittet, Dick Lyon, Geoff Picard, Ted Nash at Toda Rowing Center; from the collection of Theo Mittet.

“I spent hundreds of hours looking at the back of Dick’s head,” said Mittet. “His perfect rowing form was like his life…always striving, always gentle, always on center and always reliable.”

Like Mitchell, Lyon was a graduate of Stanford, who double majored in electrical and mechanical engineering. At the US Olympic trials in 1964, he rigged a double-steering mechanism so that both the stroke and the bow could steer if necessary…because he could. In his life outside of rowing, Lyon worked in the burgeoning IT world of Silicon Valley, many years in Hewlett Packard.

“I have many very smart friends, but Dick’s mind was unique among them,” said Mittet.

Richard Avery “Dick” Lyon died on July 8, 2019. After decades winning boatloads of medals in Masters rowing competitions, he was taking it easy on a sailboat on Huntington Lake with his wife, Marilyn. The boat flipped, and in the course of pulling the boat back to shore, Lyon had a heart attack and passed away soon after.

Mittet was close to Lyon, and appreciated his intellect and his empathy. “He was always objectively focused, soft spoken and an engaged listener without the appearance of effort.”

You can see the desire to tell the story of the everyday person in his pictures. He wrote to me a few years ago about how he enjoyed watching the Olympics on television because he knew the effort and challenges Olympians –  famous or not –  had to overcome just to get to the Games. And he appreciated them all for that.

The truth, of course, reveals that every elite athlete has a story, full of obstacles they have found their way around or over on the way to their goal. When you train and compete as an athlete at the highest levels, even if you don’t come out the winner, you are forced to learn more about who you are deep down. I have often thought of this as I watch Olympic Games on TV.  The commentator goes into depth about a number of particular Olympians, but how much could so many untold stories reveal?

06d2 Dick 1964 001
Dick Lyon with his bronze medal
killanin and samaranch 2_NYT In 1980, Samaranch succeeded Lord Killanin of Ireland, left, as I.O.C. president. Associated Press

When Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in December, 1979, Juan Antonio Samaranch was Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. After two years of cultivating a trusting relationship with Soviet leadership, Samaranch, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member with a strong desire to become president of the IOC in 1980, was angered when the Spanish government expressed their support of the American call for an Olympic boycott.

As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, “The New Lord of the Rings,” Samaranch was forbidden to attend the Moscow Olympics by his government, which could put his election to the IOC presidency in jeopardy. Certainly, he’d lose the Soviet vote. Samaranch hurriedly returned to Madrid and persuaded/strong-armed the Spanish National Olympic Committee to ignore the government and accept the IOC’s invitation to participate.

On Wednesday, July 16, 1980, three days before the start of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch was elected president of the International Olympic Committee, replacing Lord Killanin, who retired at the end of the 1980 Olympics.

Over 60 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in support of the American government’s protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and some suspected that stronger leadership by Lord Killanin might have influenced fewer nations to boycott. As an AP article noted on June 10, 1980, Lord Killanin did not compare favorably in style to his predecessor, American Avery Brundage, whom Killanin had replaced after the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Avery Brundage_cover of The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage
Avery Brundage, from the cover of the book, The Four Dimensions of Avery Brundage

The reporter noted that when the West German National Olympic Committee voted in Duesseldorf on May 15, 1980, or when the United States Olympic Committee voted in Colorado Springs on April 12, 1980 to support the boycott, Brundage would not have stood for that, and instead would have met members of those Olympic committees and challenged them to stand up to their governments. Citing a long-timer reporter of the Olympic Movement, John Rodda of the London Guardian, the article explained what Brundage might have done.

If Brundage had still been president, he would have been in Duesseldorf for this meeting. If Brundage had still been around, and living up to his reputation, he probably would have been defying governments right and left at this movement. He was always the purist, depending the ideals of the Olympic Games as a supranational movement outside of governments and politics, uncompromising in his idealism and abrasive in his public comments. He never once faltered in this defense of the Olympic Charge in his 20 years as IOC president. Brundage, if true to form, might have gone to Colorado Springs to harangue the US Olympic Committee and call its leaders to ignore the White House and send athletes to Moscow. He might have gone to Dusseldorf. He might have been jet-hopping to Tokyo and Sydney, whipping into line NOCs of Japan and Australia.

David Kanin, who was a CIA Analyst in the American government during this time, agreed that different leadership was needed in these times, and that the IOC believed a more politically savvy person was needed at the top of the IOC. Kanin explained in a podcast called “Sport in the Cold War: Carter’s Olympic Boycott,” that one of the myths the 1980 Olympics exposed was that politics and the Olympics were separate. In fact, politics and the Olympics were coming together in a way that was financially lucrative for all involved.

(The 1980 Olympics) ended that fiction. And the best evidence of that was the movement away from Lord Killanin, who was from the old school, and I think a bit over his head, to Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who was a seasoned diplomat. He wanted to get the Olympics for Barcelona and did. He understood geo-politics. He knew that the Games and politics were mixed. He knew and everybody else in the Olympic movement knew they could make a lot of money and get a lot of attention and a lot of influence by accepting that, and basically embracing the political side, even while they reject that publicly.

And while Samaranch could not strongarm the Soviet Union and her allies to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he was able to bring the world together again at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. At the next Summer Games, Samaranch presided over an Olympics in his home country, opening the doors wide to professionals in basketball with the introduction of the American Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

The Olympics were again a party everyone wanted to join.

JOC head, Katsuji Shibata (seated, glasses) at press conference post-JOC vote to boycott JOC head, Katsuji Shibata (seated, glasses) at press conference post-JOC vote to boycott_Mainichi

In 1989, the Japanese minister of transport, Shintaro Ishihara wrote an essay that Japanese needed to be more assertive, speak up and say “no.”

In the case of the cold war rhetoric between the US and the USSR, Ishihara wrote that USSR missiles could hit their targets within 60 meters, while Americans bragged US missiles were accurate to 15 meters. Ishihara emphasized that Americans could make that claim thanks to Japanese technology.

“if Japanese semiconductors are not used, this accuracy cannot be assured,” wrote Ishihara in the 1989 book, The Japan that Can Say No.  “It has come to the point that no matter how much they continue military expansion, if Japan stopped selling them the chips, there would be nothing more they could do.”

Japan That Can Say NoIn the late 1980s, the Japanese economy was challenging the American economy, books on Japanese productivity and quality was must reading in MBA programs, and Japanese people were omnipresent globally, quietly confident about Japanese ways.

If the Moscow Olympics had taken place in 1988 instead of 1980, perhaps Japan would have had the confidence to say “no” to an American boycott of the Olympics. However, in 1980, that was not the case. Despite the fact that many of America’s biggest allies in Europe decided to go to participate in the Moscow Summer Games, Japan waited until the last possible moment before finally saying “yes” to America and the boycott.

On Saturday, May 24, 1980, the day before the deadline when national Olympic committees had to accept or decline their invitation to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, members of the Japan Olympic Committee(JOC) met to vote. The president of the JOC, Katsuji Shibata, clearly wanted Japanese athletes to compete in Moscow. But the odds were stacked against him.

  • Since January, 1980, officials from the Japanese government expressed a strong view that Japan must boycott the Games, although they were diplomatic enough to say that the final decision rests with the JOC, as per IOC rules.
  • In an opinion poll taken in late February, 40% of the public were against Japan sending a team to Moscow.
  • A week later, an informal poll of JOC members revealed that the committee was far from making a decision as 12 members were in favor and 13 were against, although 14 refused to provide a response.

Shibata hoped that an outside force would convince the Japanese government to change its position and pleaded with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Lord Killanin, to negotiate with American President Jimmy Carter and Soviet secretary general Leonid Brezhnev to find “an effective solution to the present crisis of the Olympic movement.”

Even a week after the United States Olympic Committee voted on April 12 to support the Carter administration and boycott the Moscow Games, Shibata was still telling the press that Japan should go to the Moscow Games “in principle.”

In May, Japan Prime MinisterMasayoshi Ohira reiterated the government’s position to boycott the Olympics, while Finance Minister Noboru Takeshita said that financial assistance will no longer be available to sports organizations wishing to send athletes.

Grasping at straws, Shibata sent JOC officials to Asia and Europe to gather information, and perhaps uncover support for Japan to send a team.

But finally, the day of the May 24 vote came. And despite the tearful appeals of Japanese athletes, the JOC voted 29 to 13 in favor of the boycott. “With a heavy heart, I report to you that the JOC has voted to boycott the Games,” said Shibata in a Japan Times report.

One of the most promising medalists for Japan, distance runner Toshihiko Seko was present. Said Seko, who made it to the meeting after a 25-km practice run, “I am despondent but after all I suppose we have to follow what the government says because there would be no sports without a government.”

Alas, 1980 was not yet a time when Japan could say no.

Yuji Takada, wrestler, reacts to JOC vote to boycott the 1980 Olymipcs_Mainichi Yuji Takada, wrestler, reacts to JOC vote to boycott the 1980 Olympics_Mainichi

 

Don Paige_Track and Field Magazine Track & Field News cover page of Don Paige, August 1979

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.

Coe-Ovett

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.

Plan B

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.

Sports Illustratted_Sebastian Coe_11August 1980 Sports Illustrated, Sebastian Coe cover, August 11, 1980

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.

 

Thatcher Eat Your Heart Out
“Thatcher Eat Your Heart Out,” BBC

Sebastian Coe was in Singapore in July, 2005 to convince the IOC that London was the best choice for the 2012 Summer Olympics. He believed he could speak with conviction about Great Britain’s commitment to the Olympic movement – after all, Team GB has never missed a date, as he related to The Guardian.

I don’t think I would have been able to stand up in Singapore in front of the International Olympic Committee and say what I said with credibility if I had boycotted in 1980. I was able to say that Britain had sent a team to every winter and summer games. Had I not gone in 1980 it would certainly have been seized upon and exploited by rival cities.”

Coe helped convince the IOC to make London the host of the 2012 Olympics, taking heart in the fact that Great Britain did not boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Boycott Challenges

President Carter felt that the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR threatened the national security of European nations and in particular the NATO allies. But getting the commitment of other countries, particularly American allies, was a challenge.

“The foreign reaction (to the proposed boycott) was something else,” said CIA analyst, David Kanin in a podcast about Carter and the boycott. “There was always a quizzical response – why? There was skepticism. There was support from some allied governments. There was support from allied Olympic committees, but not many. And it was clear that the athletes were dead set against it. It was a complicated situation.”

The complexity that the Carter administration was trying to grasp was the multi-faceted leadership of the Olympic movement, as Kanin went on to explain. He noted that the Carter administration initially didn’t understand much about Olympic movement, and “how the tripartite system with all the federations worked.” What was not clear at first to many was that governments don’t officially determine whether a national team goes to a given Olympics or not – in fact, it’s the national Olympic committees. That is why American vice president Walter Mondale went directly to the US Olympic Committee on the day of their vote, as explained in post 2 of this series.

European Resistance to the Boycott

In the case of Great Britain, prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in agreement with American president Jimmy Carter – that a boycott would sent a strong message to the Kremlin. But in Europe, governments were supportive of whatever decision their Olympic committee chose.

Early on, the French Sports Minister Jean Pierre Sottson said that “The Olympic Games ae not organized by the governments but by the International Olympic Committee which chooses a city, and not a country,” he said in a January 19, 1980 UPI article.

In early February, 10 national Olympic committees in Europe gathered in Frankfurt, West Germany and released a joint communique stating that “National Olympic Committees had sole responsibility to decide on the participation of their athletes at the Summer Games.” (AP, February 3, 1980)

Still, Thatcher believed that a boycott was the right thing to do, as did the Parliament. On March 17, 1980, after 7 hours of debate, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for Great Britain to boycott the Moscow Games.

Allan Wells of Scotland was a sprinter expected to compete in the 1980 Olympics, and thought that the British government went overboard in trying to influence the athletes that Moscow as a bad idea, as he related in this Guardian article.

We received maybe half-a-dozen letters from 10 Downing Street trying to put us off. I opened one. There was a picture with a letter saying this is what the Russians are doing. It showed a dead Afghan girl with a doll. I can still see the picture even now as if it were yesterday. It made me feel very angry that we were being pressured to this extent. I think deep down the government wanted us to go but also wished to please the Americans. My first thought was, “What’s going to happen if I don’t go? A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming. I’m not going to shoot somebody.”

Sport Endures

In the end, the British Olympic Association voted to go, and the British government did not put up barriers to their athletes’ participation. Although West Germany’s Olympic committee voted to boycott, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland joined Great Britain and sent teams to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Allen Wells would go on to win gold in the 100 meters, as well as silver in the 200 meters. But it was the duels between famed British middle distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett that captured the imagination of the British public, and could be seen as defeat for Thatcher, according to Paul Corthorn, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in this podcast.

A large part of the public debate had taken place earlier on in the 1980, January through March. The Games were held in the summer. A certain amount of time had passed. Other things had happened, have risen to prominence. I think in terms of the way in which the British successes were portrayed in the media, there is simply a case of interest in those competitions themselves, and a desire to celebrate them instead of hark back to an earlier debate.

Jimmy Carter White House_21March1980
President Jimmy Carter addresses Olympians and Olympic hopefuls at the White House on March 21, 1980. (AP)

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.

1980 Team USA patch 2
Patch on display at 2019 USOPC Reunion.

Mondale’s Plea

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.”

Equating Berlin

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.”

Inside Five Ring Circus CoverAmerican 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.

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Cartoon from Punch, February 17, 1980.

 

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I was the only kid on my block in Queens to have a 1980 Olympics t-shirt.

It was May 21, 1980, and I was at Astor Plaza Theater in New York at the premier of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I was an ordinary carefree high school student with extraordinary interest in comic books and science fiction. I was 17 years old.

At the same time, Luci Collins, was in California, an extraordinary kid with an extraordinary talent for gymnastics, who made Team USA and was scheduled to be in Moscow for the 1980 Summer Olympics two months later, until President Jimmy Carter (in the role of Darth Vader), announced at the White House to Americans selected for the 1980 Olympic Team that “Our team will not go.” She was 16 years old.

Collins, who wanted to grow up to be just like Soviet superstar Olga Korbut, was on the precipice of making history – becoming the first ever Black gymnast to make an Olympic team. But after the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan in late December, 1979, President Carter gave the USSR an ultimatum: get out of Afghanistan by February 20, or else. The USSR did not reverse course, and President Carter stuck to his guns and forced the United States Olympic Committee to comply with a boycott as retribution.

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Luci Collins ranked fifth in this Essence list of Top 13 Black Women Who Changed The Face Of Gymnastics

So instead of becoming the trailblazing Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson of gymnastics, Collins had to wait another 4 years for her chance in her home state of California. Unfortunately, Collins didn’t make the team for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

“I couldn’t even watch the 1984 Olympic Games on TV because I was so disappointed to not be there,” she said in the book, Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. “It was heartbreaking for me. There were people on that team that I had placed ahead of just four years prior….”

1980 – A Miserable Year

For the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, President Carter was desperate to make the USSR feel painful consequences for their invasion of a neighboring country. He was also desperate to change the mood of the country.

In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group of nuclear physicists who created the “Doomsday Clock,” moved the time to from 9 to 7 Minutes to Midnight, a metaphor for how close the world was to nuclear Armageddon.

Seven months earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to curtail the production and number of strategic nuclear weapons in a treaty called SALT II, but the US Senate never ratified it. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of that year, US President Jimmy Carter withdrew from the treaty.

In 1980, the Cold War was at near freezing temperatures, and the American mood was dark. In addition to the increasing belligerency between the US and USSR, Carter was dealing with double-digit inflation, oil shortages and an American hostage crisis in Iran that began in November, 1979.

Chronicles Olympic Defector_coverLittle Sympathy

In contrast to the Olympian’s perception, the American public’s view was that USSR general secretary Leonid Brezhnev represented the Empire. In late February, 1980, 73% of people who knew about the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan supported a boycott of the Olympics, a monthly jump of 24 points.

As four-time Olympian and coach of the 1980 US Canoeing Team, Andras Toro, wrote, “the national polls were running very high in favor of the boycott, and the athletes were portrayed as selfish, unpatriotic, un-American spoiled brats.” He told me that there was a public perception that Olympians were professional athletes and were making a lot of money, but that was an unfair comparison.

“Basketball, yes. Track, maybe swimming a bit. But there were 27 or so sports that were part of the Olympic program. The public was not tuned into the sacrifice being made by athletes in sports like kayak, team handball and archery.”

Jan Palchikoff, a member of the 1976 US Olympic Team was also gearing up for the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a rower in  the women’s quadruple sculls. And she was furious that she and her teammates were denied an opportunity to compete in the Summer Games.

“Had we been receiving money from the US government, you could make the case,” she told me. “But we rowers were all on our own. I had a series of part time jobs, waitressing in two restaurants. I worked in a cookie bakery and sold imported baskets at a swap meet. I was training 30 to 40 hours a week and not getting paid. In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to be paid. So I really felt the rug was pulled out from under us.”

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Bow or #1 seat: Nancy Vespoli, #2 seat: Anne Marden, #3 seat: Elizabeth (Hills) O’Leary, Stroke or #4 seat: Jan Palchikoff, Cox: Kelly (Rickon) Mitchell, training late Spring, 1980.

The Rationale

At the heart of the argument between athletes and the US government was whether a boycott would achieve any significant results. There was little doubt that the Olympics were viewed by the Soviets as a powerful public relations tool for the Soviet way of life. Olga Chepurnaya, wrote in her 2017 article, “The Moscow Olympics, 1980: Competing in the context of the Cold War and state dirigisme,” that promoting communist ideology was one of the biggest reasons they bid for the Games in 1971.

The Olympic Games were planned as an event that would establish a basis upon which to propagandize the Soviet way of life and belief system both in countries of the socialistic bloc and in capitalist countries. In addition, a purportedly non-political headline event in the country fully fitted in with the general pattern of Soviet achievements, including space exploration and providing assistance to developing countries. By hosting a mega-event such as the Olympic Games, the USSR could considerably improve its international image on the one hand, and enhance patriotic feelings inside the country on the other.

An analyst with the CIA at the time, David Kanin, concurred with that perception, and felt that a boycott represented an action that could be seen and felt, as he explained in a podcast about Carter and the boycott.

The boycott was part of the effort, at least to show we were doing something. After Iran, where it seemed nothing was happening, I don’t think anybody, especially in an election year, could afford to be perceived as doing nothing. The Olympics were coming. It was a highly publicized event the Soviets cared about. It gave us a target. It gave us an opportunity. But also in the view I think of some it was an appropriate public expression of government and public opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We were then looking for support from allies, neutrals and others around the world.

Palchikoff found no solace in the explanations. She was tired of being told that the boycott was a necessary move to ensure national security. Today, she strongly feels that more could have been done for international relations if they had competed in the Olympics, and that the boycott made no difference in America’s national security. In fact, the US Government’s only impact was to harm its own citizens. “No lives were saved. We were used as a political tool. If that’s the best the US has to negotiate with the Soviets, then we’re in trouble.”

Like Toro and Palchikoff, Collins of course went on to have fulfilling careers and lives. But she felt that Carter missed the point about the Olympics. “In my opinion,” Collins said, “the Olympics has always been known to be where all the countries of the world come to unite no matter what differences we have. President Carter used the Olympics to prove his point, and that was wrong.”

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Cartoon from Punch, February 10, 1980

 

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Olympians are inspirations because of their achievements despite the barriers before them. Lijia Xu won the gold medal in the Laser Radial sailing competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team China, reaching the heights of her sport after overcoming a lack of hearing and sight, a sporting complex inexperienced in sailing, cancer, and a culture not yet open to new ideas.

Today, the Shanghai native is based in Dorset, England, and like so many high-performance athletes, figuring out how to transition from sport to new and sustainable career opportunities.

As a coach and trainer, Xu has gone online, sharing her techniques and insight on Airbnb Experiences. Xu has two courses: Olympic Champion’s Sailing Journey, and the one I participated in, Home Workouts & Q&A with Olympic Gold Medalist.

In the Home Workouts course, Xu is all business, as she takes you through a wide range of stretching and small-muscle group workouts, explaining how “T,” “Y,” and “W” exercises can relieve pain and improve posture. For a first-timer like me, those exercises proved to be a heck of a workout.

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Xu learned these techniques as a teenager when she first started training with sailor and coach, Jon Emmett, who taught her that not only could Pilates resolve her spine issues, they would give her the mobility and movement required for the very physical aspects of sailing in a one-person dinghy.

Xu met Emmett because she was desperate to learn. Within the sports development system in China, Xu was beholden to her coaches and the sporting administrators who dictated the training regimen of all their athletes. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, competitive sailing was a relatively new sport in China, and so the local expertise was not so advanced.

Thirsty for knowledge, Xu read a book called “Be Your Own Sailing Coach,” and reached out to the author, Emmett, on Facebook, as she explained in her fascinating book, “Golden Lily: Asia’s First Dinghy Sailing Gold Medalist.” Despite the local protests, Xu helped get Emmett hired to coach the sailors in China. But that was just the beginning of the challenge, as Emmett and his coaching ways created discomfort for the local coaches, as Xu wrote:

All the sailors have to listen unconditionally to their coaches; the coaches obey their leaders; and the leaders report to their superiors. What Jon found hard was how those leaders, who had never sailed, could say that they knew what was best for the sailors and arrange everything based on their knowledge of an unrelated realm. They were unwilling to listen to the sailors’ opinions and it was a common practice to deny or disagree with what someone in a lower position said or asked for. So however hard the sailors tried to make the most reasonable and sensible suggestions to their coaches and leaders, their effort was mostly in vain.

Up to the moment Xu won the gold medal in the Radial Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics, she had to fight for time and advice from Emmett, as access to the English coach was highly restricted. But in some ways, that was par for the course for Xu.

When Xu was born in 1987, her parents learned that she had half the hearing of an ordinary person and very poor vision in her left eye. Throughout her childhood and teenage years in Shanghai, she had to deal with the embarrassment of asking people to repeat themselves, or the spiteful laughter of children and adults who could not understand why she had to be told things over and over again.

But thanks to a chance meeting in Shanghai with a sailing coach who spotted the 10-year-old swimmer at a pool one day, Xu was asked to try out for the nascent sailing team, in a boat called “Optimist,” an appropriate name for the young girl who continued to keep her chin up. Once she realized the benefits of sailing, her self-esteem bloomed.

The freedom (of the water) was particularly appealing because I felt my life was limited by my poor hearing and eyesight while on land. Young children laughed at me, made fun of me, and didn’t allow me to join their activities due to my lack of these basic human functions. So the moment I boarded a boat, a deep sense of freedom suddenly overwhelmed my body, heart and mind. I loved to be in the boat surrounded by nature which isn’t judgmental; just fresh, open and vast! I had never been so happy and fulfilled as I was on a boat.

Lyzia Xu 2

The little tomboy grew from 130 to 176 cm and doubled her weight from 30 to 60 kg. She won the 1998 Chinese National Championships in Hong Kong, and in 1999, won her first international competition, taking gold at the Asian Championships. Soon she was flying to other countries and winning championships overseas. And in 2002, at the age of 15, she had the 2004 Athens Olympics in her sights.

Perhaps the Olympics had always been a silent goal. Xu wrote in her book about how she was inspired by a Japanese television series about a female volleyball player hoping to make it to the Olympics. And when she eagerly watched the opening ceremonies on the 2000 Sydney Olympics, her father teased her by saying, “Will I see you on TV one day, representing China in the Olympic Games?”

However, as Xu wrote, “life doesn’t always go the way we plan.” In November of 2002, a tumor was discovered in her left thigh bone. Surgery would mean that the dream of making the team for the Athens Games was over. Not having surgery, she was told, would mean the possible loss of her leg, if not her life.

After the surgery, after the unbearable pain began to fade, she started her recovery – excruciating exercises so that she could reactivate her leg muscles and walk again. But beyond the exercises, she used the downtime to study English, with the intent to communicate with foreign sailors to improve her craft. And it was in those quiet moments alone, she realized how much she missed sailing.

Sometimes I would ponder how boring my life was without sailing. It was like a life without vigor, a picture without color, or a movie without sound. It was in those quiet days, reflecting on myself and the past, that I realized how deeply I loved the sport of sailing. My life just couldn’t continue without it. When I steered the boat it is actually the boat which was pointing out a route for me, guiding me towards my dream goal and life values.

Sometimes you meet someone whose life energy is so great, it’s visible. If you have the opportunity to meet Lijia Xu, online or otherwise, you’ll know what I mean.

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Who will win? The answer is blowin’ in the wind.

The online experience is best when you forget you’re online.

Olympic sailor, James Espey, and his wife and Team USA sailor, Genny Tulloch, made that happen in their program – Sail the Virtual Seas with an Olympian.

Bantering with amateur sailors and sailor wannabes online, Espey provided an exciting blow-by-blow commentary of one of his own races at the 2012 London Olympics, using video and web conferencing annotation tools to demonstrate the excitement of Laser class sailing, drawing involuntary “woah’s” and “oohs” from the program participants.

We were all joining a new virtual learning course organized by Airbnb. The global lodging company has invested in guided experiences hosted by residents of popular travel spots called Airbnb Experiences. In the era of social distancing, Airbnb is moving experiences online, a growing number hosted by Olympians, current and retired. While other programs focused on the personal back stories of Olympians, like the Airbnb Experiences of Breeja Larson or Lauren Gibbs, Espey’s focus was on the tactics of race sailing, finding inventive ways to engage and teach.

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Using household items like utensils, bag clips and tooth picks, Espey, a Northern Ireland native, and Tulloch, a contender for Tokyo2020, demonstrated the choices sailors make at the starting line depending on wind direction. They showed through items on their table how competitive sailors explain race conditions and tactics  to each other, a practice called “Bar Karate,” so called for the movement of arms made to show shifts in boat direction, usually executed with a favored drink in hand.

For the layperson, sailing is a mystery. For the competitive racer, sailing is a challenge. But the differentiating factor between a great sailor and an Olympic sailor, like the Olympic Alpine skier, is in the ability to read the course. Unlike skiers, sailors have to read their watery course as it changes on a moment-to-moment basis, because of the wind.

Catching the visual cues of wind, revealed in darker patches of water known as “puffs,” or “cat’s paws” is a critical differentiating factor, as Espey explained. “If you get a header, you tack. If you see a puff, you have to understand why it is happening, what its effect will be, and how your behavior in the boat should change. Is it going to lift me? Head me?”

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Is that dark patch a “puff” of wind to leverage, the shadow of a cloud, or a forest of kelp?

In addition to dark patches in the water, clouds are clues to the location of wind. But you need to understand the differences in clouds. Tulloch said that “clouds that are building are sucking in air. They look like mushrooms, and you want to avoid them at all costs. The ones that are about to spit out rain, you sail to as fast as you can. The second that rain comes there is 10-15 knots more than anywhere else on the course.”  Added Espey, “You have to watch clouds out of the corner of your eye. As clouds move across the course, they can drag the winds, create a temporary false wind shift, and swing back again once that cloud leaves. They’re very helpful. You can play them. You just don’t know until it happens.”

On the particular London Olympic race day that Espey shared, it was “pretty hectic,” as the Nothe Course, one of five Laser courses in Weymouth Bay had considerable wind shifts in play. “It was hell,” said Espey. Like any race, reading the “puffs,” and understanding which ones will provide the greatest acceleration is vital. And he showed how many sailors may have misread a dark patch in the bay to the left of the starting line as a puff, when actually it was a shadow of a very high cloud, “which distracted a lot of these guys,” said Espey.

A smaller group headed right toward true wind, and got off to a great start. Tulloch explained that  people who qualify for the Olympics are the best at managing these things: reading the wind, starting well, and physically handling the demands of the boat while monitoring shifts in the wind. Espey said it’s like examining a puzzle and finding the easy way through it.

Espey still competes in professional competitions at the highest levels, and remodels boats in San Francisco, including the 100-foot super maxi CQS, the world’s fastest yacht, the first to exceed 50 knots. Tulloch does color commentary for televised sailing events like American’s Cup, and is expected to do so during the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Together, they form a terrific tag-team teaching combo. Come and sail the virtual seas with them in this engrossing Airbnb Experience.

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James Espey sailing in the Laser competition at the 2012 London Olympics for Team Ireland. (With permission from James Espey.)