- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 22, 2006

“The Olympics are something you do with your heart and soul. And when the government comes in and they mess with that, I just don’t think that’s right. There were many times I felt like driving down to Plains, Ga., and saying, ‘How dare you? How did you have the right to do this?’”

Lynn Petronella,

former U.S. distance runner

Long after the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow, Lynn Petronella and many of her prospective teammates that year have not forgiven then-President Jimmy Carter for mixing sports and politics to their distinct disadvantage.

On Jan. 20, 1980 — one year before Carter yielded the White House to Ronald Reagan — his announcement on “Meet the Press” that the United States would boycott the Games sent the nation’s athletic community reeling.

Carter made his decision the month after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and did so “to make it clear to the Soviet Union that it cannot trample on an independent nation and at the same time continue to do business with the rest of the world.”

Coming shortly after Iran took and held 66 Americans hostage at the U.S. Embassy, the Olympic boycott stunned Americans already burdened by a stagnant economy, high gas prices (yes, even back then) and a general feeling that the United States was losing much of its influence in the world. When Carter ran for re-election against the sunny Reagan that fall, the result was almost preordained.

In recent decades, Carter has been called the best ex-president in U.S. history by some because of his good deeds and worldwide peacemaking efforts. Yet to most athletes who were deprived of a chance to compete in Moscow, his name remains anathema.

“I feel disgusted that he would have anything to do with the Olympic movement after nearly destroying the Olympics,” former distance runner Steve Scott said shortly before the 1996 Atlanta Games in Carter’s home state.

Anita DeFrantz, a rower in 1980 and now a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, put it this way: “For those of us directly touched by the boycott, it will not be forgotten or forgiven. Carter had no right to take the Olympics from us. We were absolutely, shamelessly used as pawns.”

During a White House reception for U.S. athletes later in 1980 — how in the world did he get them to attend? — Carter flashed his trademark grin and said they would understand someday why he had called for the boycott.

Swimming coach George Haines wasn’t buying it: “Mr. President, I think you made a big mistake, and maybe someday you will understand that.”

So far Carter apparently hasn’t — if indeed the boycott was a mistake. In a 1996 statement, he said only, “The decision … was a very difficult one for me and for other political and sports leaders in America and in many other countries.”

Understandably, Atlanta organizers didn’t mention Carter or even list him among Georgia’s prominent citizens while bidding for the 1996 Games. He was scheduled to carry the Olympic torch as a “community hero” but backed out, claiming a scheduling conflict. The honor of lighting the Olympic cauldron was performed by Muhammad Ali as millions wept at the former heavyweight champion’s shaky condition because of Parkinson’s syndrome.

After his initial statement, Carter lobbied hard, and successfully, for other nations to join the boycott. Some 65 nations refused to participate, an estimated 45 doing so because of pressure from the United States. Included among the no-shows were Japan, West Germany and Canada, while Great Britain and France sent much smaller delegations than usual. The total of 80 nations participating was the smallest since 1956.

During the opening ceremony, 16 nations chose to parade under the Olympic flag rather than their national flags, and the Olympic anthem replaced national anthems at many medal ceremonies, Without the United States involved, NBC cut back sharply on its coverage despite having paid a record $87million for television rights.

As it turned out, turnabout was considered fair play by the Soviet Union and 13 of its allies (including Cuba and East Germany), who boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics four years later. But by that time, Carter was shelling peanuts and offering Reagan unsolicited advice from his farm in Plains, Ga.

With the Olympics and sports in general having become bigger business than ever, there has been only scattered muttering that the United States should boycott the 2008 Summer Games in China. Just as it did 26 years ago, a larger concern looms: Should world politics have any bearing on sports? After all, some will note, the United States — and Jesse Owens of sainted memory — took part in the 1936 Berlin Games while the Nazis continued and extended their reign of terror in Germany.

Years later Carter called the boycott “a tragic and devastating experience.” He added, “I hope the end of the Cold War has ended any threat to the integrity of the Olympics. … The political divisions that separate us are artificial. Athletic competition breaks down those barriers. It brings people together on common ground.”

Or so we can hope.

And this long after the fact, perhaps even a few of the U.S. athletes who stayed home in 1980 will see fit to soften their wrath.

“I really believe President Carter was making the decision that he thought was in the best interest the country,” said Debbie Brown, then a volleyball player and now coach at Notre Dame. “I don’t really understand it, but I don’t think it was a malicious move on his part at all.”

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