Sue Walsh was 17 on March 19, 1980, when she sat in front of the TV to watch the news. Since the beginning of the year there were rumors that she and other American athletes preferred not to believe.
The news they feared was confirmed that night, when then US President Jimmy Carter announced that the country boycott the Moscow Olympics. The Games started four months later and ended on August 3.
“I looked at the screen, without believing it. I was young and didn’t understand it. I still don’t really understand it,” says Walsh to Folha 40 years after one of the most striking events of the Cold War, the geopolitical dispute between the capitalist and communist worlds.
Carter used the boycott as a justification for Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. It was followed by 65 other nations. The 80 countries that participated in the event, including Brazil, represented the lowest number in an Olympics since 1956.
Walsh was guaranteed a spot to compete in swimming. With the second best time in the 100 meters breaststroke in 1979, she was seen as a candidate for a medal, but at the time of the boycott announcement she was not concerned with brands. He didn’t even focus on his own disappointment. He thought only of his parents.
“My father was a teacher, and we were a family of five brothers. I remembered the sacrifices he had made so that I could swim and compete. I remembered that he had made a huge effort to buy tickets to go with my mother to Moscow to see me represent the United States. All that was lost “, he says.
Craig Beardsley did not watch the news and did not know at the time of the American government’s decision, ratified five days later by the national Olympic committee. At the age of 20, he had just finished his training at the University of Florida. His coach asked that no one leave. He gathered the swimmers in the locker room to tell the news.
“I had heard of the possibility, but I didn’t take it seriously. Why would they do that? When they told us we weren’t going to Moscow, I was … I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it. Why? Like our presence or absence would change the situation in Afghanistan? “, asks Beardsley to this day.
He saw himself as an athlete close to peak. Was right. Ten days after the Olympic final of the race for which he was qualified, the 200 meters butterfly, broke the world record. His time of 1min58s21 was about a second and a half faster than that recorded by Soviet Sergey Fesenko to win gold in Moscow.
Among the American athletes heard by Folha and who did not travel to the Games, the standard response was, after all, acceptance. Beardsley says he broke the record because he was motivated for the upcoming college exam season.
This did not suit Anita DeFrantz. She initiated a petition, after the boycott announcement, for the decision to be reversed. When the American committee ratified it, the athlete went to court, but nothing went right.
Bronze medalist in rowing in Montreal-1976, the first Olympics in which women were able to compete in this sport, DeFrantz hoped to improve the result four years later.
“I was 27, and that year of 1980 changed my life. It gave me a sense of things other than sport and I felt the need to act, to try to do something. I didn’t think it was fair to deny hundreds of athletes the chance to make a dream come true. I decided to go after it by the means I had at my disposal. Something that was very precious was taken from me “, he recalls.
She claims to have received attacks in the press. Letters with hate messages were sent to his home, and his revolt grew even more months later. “In June, we received the news that the United States was selling wheat to the Soviet Union. They were doing business between them, but we couldn’t go to the Games.”
The Americans were not the only athletes affected, but they became the most visible faces of the boycott because the Carter administration used its diplomatic weight to get other nations to follow suit.
The current President of the IOC (International Olympic Committee), Thomas Bach, was one of those prevented from going to Moscow by then West Germany. Today’s top hat had been a gold medalist in team fencing in Montreal.
Not going to Moscow became a burden for DeFrantz, who had fought years before for women’s right to participate in rowing. She became a lawyer and abandoned competitions, but not the sport. In 1984, it was part of the organization of Los Angeles Olympics, which was boycotted by the Soviet Union and 16 other allied countries.
The American became a leader in 1986 and became the first black woman member of the IOC. Today he is vice president of the entity. “In a way, what happened to me in 1980 started the path that led me to the IOC, and I am happy for that”, he ponders.
She decided not to try to qualify for the 1984 Games, but many American athletes did. Edwin Moses, for example, still regrets not having won three gold medals in the 400 meters hurdles, as he won the race in Montreal and Los Angeles.
For others, the 1980 boycott was the shovel in the dream of the medal. Sue Walsh trained for the next four years. In the swimming qualifiers, he didn’t get a spot in the Olympics for a hundredth of a second. “That was probably more difficult to swallow than the boycott. It was the end of the dream.”
The elimination marked the beginning of the end of the swimmer’s career, who at the time was 21 years old. Beardsley was third in the 200 meter butterfly race and also ended up out. But he admits that he was not the same swimmer of 1980, in the physical or psychological question.
“I already had other plans. I was ready to move on with my life. Because of what had happened before the Moscow Games, I felt compelled to try again in 1984, by my family and my coaches. Part of me I didn’t want that anymore. I was two seconds slower than my time in 1980 and I didn’t qualify “, he says.
Both were already thinking about the future because, at the time, Olympic sport was really amateur. Few athletes were able to support themselves for long years with sponsorships. Both needed to work and make a living out of swimming.
They were also hampered by the change in qualification rules. Until 1980, the best three of each race were guaranteed a place. For Los Angeles, only two.
DeFrantz, Beardsley and Walsh say they are at peace with the events of 40 years ago, although they still do not understand why the sport needed to pay the price of politics.
In 2005, Jimmy Carter said it was a very difficult decision. Jeff Blatnick, a wrestler who would win gold in Los Angeles, says he met the former president on a plane once, when he reportedly apologized to him for the boycott. Carter, now 95, has never denied or confirmed the story.
“After four decades, you have a perspective on things. At 17, it was devastating. I appreciate that he [Carter] has apologized, in one way or another. There are not many leaders who would do that. I think he was following what he was told, “says Sue, who won 11 national titles.
Those affected by the 1980 boycott have been sought after not only for the 40th anniversary of the event. The current period creates a relationship between the chances lost at that time and those that may occur with the postponement (at first) of the Tokyo Olympics for one year, rescheduled to 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Some things are similar. There is the emotional side. The athlete dedicates his life to this and has a plan that needs to be changed. But there are big differences. You are not being excluded by nationality. Nobody is going to the Games, and everyone is on it together, “says Beardsley.
DeFrantz even considered competing in Moscow under the Olympic flag. This did not occur to Walsh, who today remains involved in swimming, in the master category.
Within weeks of the start of the Olympics, Beardsley was approached by the Taiwan Olympic Committee. Since his mother was of Chinese origin, it was possible to find a way to include him in the country’s swimming team, but he refused. “I couldn’t accept it. That wouldn’t be fair to anyone.”