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.

 

Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London
Fanny Blankers-Koen winning 200 meters in London

 

When Fanny Blankers-Koen won four gold medals at the 1948 London Olympics, she was 30 years old and a mother of two.

Despite the fact that the war-ravaged years of the 1940s resulted in athletes of all ages, she was considered too old. The Smithsonian noted the reaction of TeamGB’s team manager, Jack Crump, who “took one look at Blankers-Koen and said she was ‘too old to make the grade.’”

Even more amazingly, Blankers-Koen won the gold in the 100-meters, the 80-meter hurdles, the 200-meters and the 4×100 relay while 3 months pregnant! If the press was aware of that, it’s possible Blankers-Koen would have been attacked more aggressively. And yet, the what the press wrote must have rankled, typically being described as the “shy, towering, drably domesticated” housewife.

According to The Economist, she was reported to say, “I got very many bad letters”, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with…short trousers.”

The Smithsonian noted that the press was commonly patronizing of her, “hyping Blankers-Koen as the ‘Flying Housewife…’ Newspaper coverage of her exploits reflected the sexism of the time in other ways. One reporter wrote that she ran ‘like she was chasing the kids out of the pantry.’ Another observed that she ‘fled through her trial heats as though racing to the kitchen to rescue a batch of burning biscuits.'”

And yet, Blankers-Koen was indeed in conflict between personal achievement and family. After she had won her second gold medal in the 80-meters, barely, she was ready to go home. The unending criticism and the pressure to win combined made her homesick. But her husband and coach, Jan Blankers, convinced her that glory was hers for the taking. So Blankers-Koen trooped on, still breaking down in tears after a 200-meter heat.

Fanny Blankers Koen with her children

The Flying Dutchwoman went on to win gold in the 200 meters and 4×100 relay, convincingly, establishing her place in the Olympic Pantheon of greats. Blankers-Koen set 16 world records in eight different athletic disciplines. In 1999, she was voted female athlete of the 20th century by the International Association of Athletics.

And while it may not have seemed so at the time, Blankers-Koen made a difference. So thought Sebastian Coe head of the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics:

“She moved the discussion on about the ability of women, particularly post World War II. A lot of things came together at the same time, particularly women who were taking up jobs that were often vacated by men” (who did not survive the fighting). “Women were showing that they were physically the equals of those jobs when it was assumed that they were not.”

sebastian coe_head of IAAF.png

How do you clean up corruption when it is perceived that all parties are steeped in it?

According to this powerful opinion piece by Juliet Macur of the New York Times, better to go with the devil you know, than the devil you don’t.

She writes how the head of WADA (the World Anti-Doping Agency), Dick Pound, has consistently been blunt and hardline with regards to corruption in athletics, particularly as it relates to doping. (She cites in the article a hysterical quote from Pound about a famous cyclist’s testosterone levels as a case in point.) But for some reason, when it comes to the fate of IAAF leader, Sebastian Coe, Pound somehow found it in his heart to praise and support, not tear down. As Macur wrote, “What had WADA done with the real Dick Pound?”

Coe took gold in the 1500 meters in 1980 and 1984, was elected as an MP in the British Parliament, and has been a leader in the International Amateur Athletics Federation since 2007, recently becoming the head of the IAAF last August. To be honest, it’s a lousy time to be the head of the IAAF, which is under a dark cloud of suspicion.

SEbastian Coe wins gold in 1500 in Los Angeles
Sebastian Coe wins gold in the 1500 meter race at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games

There are allegations of gifts made in exchange for awarding the 2019 world track and field championships to Doha, Qatar. There is the state-sponsored doping program in Russia that was conveniently ignored by the IAAF but eventually exposed by WADA, resulting in Russia’s track and field being banned from international competition, including the Rio Olympics in August. There is the suspected doping of Kenya’s runners, whose performance at the World Athletics Championships in Beijing last August was so superlative, they topped the medals tables for the first time ever.

And finally, there is Coe himself, who very reluctantly disassociated himself from his long-time paid association with Nike. The IAAF awarded the 2021 Athletics World Championships to Eugene, Oregon in the US, with apparently a formal bidding process. Oregon is definitely a hotbed for track, so Eugene’s selection is not a surprise. But Oregon is also the home to Nike. There’s no real indication that Nike, and thus Coe, had anything shady to do with the selection process. But taken all together, the IAAF is not currently a poster child for transparency and ethical decision making.

But as Macur explains, “It can be difficult to find purity at the top of international sports. In track and field, Coe, the former middle-distance star and Olympic champion, just might be the best option. He should serve his punishment for not speaking out against pervasive doping in track and field. His sentence: to clean up his dirty sport.”

Macur goes on to quote 5,000-meter runner and champion, Lauren Fleshmen as saying that Coe probably didn’t know all the corrupt things going on in the IAAF because of its