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

Roy_summer vacation_1967 maybe
Roy, sometime between the Tokyo and Mexico City Olympic Games.

On this, the last day of 2015, I’d like to thank everyone for their support of my blog – The Olympians. I have posted at least once every day since I started the blog on May 1. Out of about 300 posts, I’ve selected 25 that I personally like, in good part because I’ve had the great fortune to talk with the people mentioned in these stories.

  1. A Helicopter View of US-USSR Relations, Olympic Style
  2. American Gymnast Makoto Sakamoto and Memories of Home: Post-War Shinjuku
  3. Arnold Gordon (Part 1): Befriending Judy Garland at Manos in Shinjuku
  4. The Banning of Headgear in Boxing: The Convoluted World of Protecting Our Athletes
  5. Clumsy Handoff, Beautiful Result: A World Record Finish for the American 4X400 Relay Team in Tokyo
  6. Coach Hank Iba: The Iron Duke of Defense Who Led the Men’s Basketball Team to Gold in 1964
  7. Creativity by Committee: The 2020 Olympic Emblem and the Rio Olympic Mascots?
  8. Crowded, Noisy, Dirty, Impersonal: Tokyo in the 1960s
  9. The Dale McClements’ Diary: From Athlete to Activist
  10. Doug Rogers, Star of the Short Film “Judoka”: A Fascinating Look at Japan, and the Foreigner Studying Judo in the 1960s
  11. Escape from East Berlin in October 1964: A Love Story
  12. Escape from Manchuria: How the Father of an Olympian Left a Legacy Beyond Olympic Proportions
  13. Fame: Cover Girl and Canadian Figure Skater Sandra Bezic
  14. Frank Gorman: Harvard Star, Tokyo Olympian, and Now Inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame
  15. The Geesink Eclipse – The Day International Judo Grew Up
  16. India Beats Pakistan in Field Hockey: After the Partition, the Sporting Equivalent of War
  17. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  18. On Being Grateful: Bob Schul
  19. Protesting Via Political Cartoons: Indonesia Boycotts the Tokyo Olympics
  20. The Sexist Sixties: A Sports Writers Version of “Mad Men” Would Make the Ad Men Blush
  21. “Swing” – The Danish Coxless Fours Found It, and Gold, in Tokyo
  22. Toby Gibson: Boxer, Lawyer, Convict
  23. Vesper Victorious Under Rockets Red Glare – A Dramatic Finish to One of America’s Greatest Rowing Accomplishments
  24. What it Means to Be an Olympian: Bill Cleary Remembers
  25. Who is that Bald-Headed Beauty: The Mystery of the Soviet Javelin Champion

People living in Japan are used to Hollywood films coming out months after their US release date. But it’s unusual for a movie to come out a year after its release.

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, I got to watch the film Unbroken.

Zamperini in front of photo of Berlin GamesDirected by the actress, Angelina Jolie, Unbroken is the incredible story about Louis Zamperini, whose life defies belief. He was an Olympian in the 1936 Olympics, who finished eighth in the 5,000 meters final, but did so in such dramatic fashion that Adolph Hitler sought him out to shake his hand.

He was a bombardier on a B-24 fighting in the Pacific War, was a survivor not only of a crash on a rescue mission in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, but also 47 days on a life raft without food or water.

His life up to that point is a miracle, but when he was finally found and captured by Japanese troops on the Marshall Islands, he embarked on a more brutal path as a prisoner of war in various camps in Japan. The brutality he and other POWs endured is portrayed in the movie fairly graphically.

Japan Film Unbroken
Moviegoers wait before Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken” opens in front of a movie theater in Tokyo, Saturday, Feb. 6, 2016. “Unbroken” has opened more than a year after the rest of the world in Japan, the country where the main character endures as a prisoner of war and where some have called for a boycott of the movie. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)

It was this depiction of the Japanese overlords, among other things, that was feared to provoke right-wing groups if the film were to be shown in Japan. But one year later, after countless appeals by Jolie to bring the film to Japan, Toho-Towa finally decided to distribute the film after a delay, and a small art-house theater in Shibuya called Theater Image Forum which seats only 64 people, decided to show the film.

According to the AP report, the “distributor said in a statement that it decided to go ahead with the showing because various views on war should be expressed, and because it was unnatural for a movie about Japan not to be shown in the country.”


Too bad that only 2 theaters in all of Tokyo are showing the film.

The film itself is a Hollywood biopic – in other words, a traditional telling of a great person’s life – a chronologically told tale of the person’s significant moments, with flash backs here and there. But because Zamperini’s life story is epic, it’s impossible not to be impressed.

Perhaps the most striking was not the performance of Jack O’Connell, who portrayed Zamperini in the film. It was of the Japanese singer turned actor, Miyavi, who was at times electrifying as a POW camp authority whose sadistic nature made life, as it were, intolerable for the prisoners.

miyavi as watanabe in unbroken
Miyavi in Unbroken

Zamperini’s life after the war was a personal challenge – how does one digest the horrors he faced and emerge a fully functioning member of a peace-time society? And yet, he did, and came to realize that forgiveness was the only way out of his personal pit of lifelong trauma. As the movie, as well as this documentary by CBS on Zamperini depict, the man, unbroken, did return to Japan in 1998. He carried the Olympic torch for a kilometer at a ceremony leading up to the Nagano Winter Games. And the Torrance Torch, as he was once called as a high school track phenom, shone bright once again.

(Go to the 33 minute mark for that wonderful moment.)


American, Charles Paddock, finishes in front of teammate Morris Kirksey (left) and Brit (Harry Edward) (right).
American, Charles Paddock, finishes in front of teammate Morris Kirksey (left) and Brit (Harry Edward) (right).

Under the newly created, now omnipresent Five-Ring Olympic flag, a lieutenant in the US Marines, who served in WWI, was crowned the fastest man in the world. Charley Paddock from Gainesville, Texas edged out teammate, Morris Kirksey in an Olympic record of 10.6 seconds.

As you can see in the above photo finish, Paddock completed the race in his unique style – leaping over the finish line. He took home another gold when he and his American teammates set a world record in the men’s 4X100 relay, handily beating France. Amazingly, you can see Paddock’s victory run on film as well!

World War I ended on November 11, 1918, a deadly conflict that ended the lives of over 16 million combatants and civilians. In the wake of the so-called “Great War”, the International Olympic Committee decided that the Olympic Games should continue its cycle in 1920. While Hungary was originally the first choice, it was one of the nations on the losing side of the war, along with Austria, Bulgaria, Germany and Turkey, so was not even going to be invited.

Not that the nations on the winning side in Europe were in great shape. The IOC decided to

1980 Mockba Olympics t shirtHow many Americans had a 1980 Moscow Olympics T-shirt? Not many I assure you. My father, who worked for NBC, gave this t-shirt to me, which I treasured. This picture is me 9 years later in Tokyo, sporting the latest in boycott fashion. Note the NBC logo, the ugly one that replaced the beloved technicolor peacock.