The ongoing history of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team

William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” and perhaps never were more apt words written than as they relate to the 1980 U.S. Olympic team.

Five San Diego-area seventh-graders set out this academic year to make a little history of their own, telling the story of that 1980 U.S. team — forever the team that got left home amid the boycott of the Moscow Games — in what’s called the “Kenneth E. Behring National History Day” contest.

Under the direction of their teacher, 28-year-old Hillary Gaddis, the students from the Day-McKellar Preparatory School in La Mesa, Calif., made it through the local and state rounds and now are en route to the nationals, to be held June 12-16 at the University of Maryland. The contest is a big deal. Here’s the website.

Along they way, they managed to get a letter from President Jimmy Carter. The letter brings the past immediately alive.

The seventh-graders from the Day-McKellar Preparatory School in La Mesa, Calif., with their teacher, Hillary Gaddis -- left to right: Allie Shelton, Hillary Gaddis, Mikela Chatfield, Thomas Day, Nick Young, Maxwell Major // photo courtesy Hillary Gaddis

Indeed, in that letter, the former president undoubtedly will summon in many quarters, yet again, all the emotions that still attend the boycott — 31 years later.

He writes that to withdraw from the 1980 Summer Games was a “very difficult decision for me…”

He also writes, “Both the Congress and the Olympic Committee voted overwhelmingly not to participate, and I reluctantly agreed with their decision because the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in violation of all reasonable international laws.”

The students, as well as Ms. Gaddis, emphasized repeatedly their respect for Mr. Carter and for the office of the presidency.

Nonetheless, a reading of the historical record would strongly suggest that the former president is perhaps not being entirely forthcoming about his role in orchestrating the boycott.

To be clear: That’s not the opinion of the Day-McKellar students or Ms. Gaddis or the school.

That’s me. But what would any reasonable person conclude from a review of the historical record?

As early as his State of the Union address in January, 1980, for instance, just weeks after the late 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter declared that “neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”

That February, he said it would be “unconscionable” to send athletes to the capital of another nation “under the aegis of the Olympics” when that nation was “actively involved” in the “invasion of and the subjugation of innocent people.”

In April, just days before that U.S. Olympic Committee vote on Carter’s call for a boycott, amid an extraordinary variety of political and financial pressures, the president announced he would use “legal action” if necessary to prevent U.S. athletes from going to Moscow.

Three decades later, for him to say he “reluctantly agreed” with the decision — well, as one of the students, Maxwell Major, 13, said when he read the letter, “I was shocked.”

It has, indeed, been a lesson in history — as well as politics and other endeavors — for these young people.

The irony can not be lost on anyone that of course it is now American troops who are now in Afghanistan.

In their presentation during the contests, Max portrays a wrestler, Gene Mills, who was 21 in 1980, the greatest 114 1/2-pound wrestler of his time. Mills’ shoulder didn’t hold up and he didn’t get a chance at another Games.

Max said, “When I interviewed him, he said [the boycott] was a stupid and ridiculous decision and he said he couldn’t believe they would screw all the athletes who had worked their butts off for years to get this opportunity.”

Nick Young, 13, said he has learned how not going to the Games has shaped the lives of those who didn’t go. Rowdy Gaines — a swimmer who not only made the 1984 team but won three gold medals and is now an influential NBC commentator at the Summer Games — has coined the term “ghost Olympians” for those solely on the 1980 team, Nick said.

There’s sadness in that, for sure. According to Nick, though, there’s another piece to it, too. Another 1980 swimmer, Glenn Mills (no relation to Gene), had put in countless hours in the pool training in honor of an older brother, Kyle, who had died of cancer. When the Day-McKellar young people called, Glenn Mills said, “Everyone remembers 1980. That makes it special. Makes it unique. If it wasn’t for the boycott, you guys wouldn’t be talking to me today.”

The Day-McKellar team has put in hundreds of hours preparing for nationals. They’ve done 32 primary source interviews. They have talked to the likes of Mike Moran, the U.S. Olympic Committee’s spokesman from 1978 to 2003, who said that he enjoyed the conversation “as much as anything I lived through at the USOC over almost a quarter century.”

He added,” Their intense interest in the 1980 Olympic team’s heartbreak and its stories was inspiring to me, because I had felt most people had forgotten this historic group of American athletes and the loss of their dreams. They have managed to re-awaken those memories and their passion for the subject is special.”

You know, the Day-McKellar team — Nick; Max; Mikela Chatfield, 12; Thomas Day, 12; Allie Shelton, 11 — could win that contest.

If there really is any karma in the world, on behalf of that 1980 U.S. team — they will.

If you’d like to donate to the Day-McKellar team to help offset the cost of travel to Maryland, call Hillary Gaddis at 858-335-3936 or reach her via email at hillarycecilia@hotmail.com.

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5 thoughts on “The ongoing history of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team

  1. Unfortunately I am not shocked at the former President’s attempt to re-write history in his favor. Surprised, perhaps, because there are so many of us who can attest otherwise and so much evidence to the contrary. Many of the Adminstration’s threats were unconscionable (“we will destroy you”) and some were facially illegal (pulling athelete passports but encouraging the press to go to Moscow). Congratulations students, on your skills at critical analysis and research. I look forward to contributing to your travel expenses. Nice “find” on this story, Alan.

  2. I’m glad to see they didn’t take Carter’s lie as gospel. It was Carter’s Boycott, plain and simple. Besides what Mike mentions above, he threatened the various National Governing Bodies (the committees for the individual sports), their officers and their sponsors with things like pulling their Non Profit status, Audits by the IRS and many other dirty tricks to get them to vote to stay home.

    It’s good to hear that some young folks won’t ask the next member of the 1980 US Olympic Team they meet “How did you do?” Thank you for telling our story.

  3. Nice comments Mike! I feel betrayed all over again! Not only by his actions in 1980 but now by his choice to deny responsibility for what was so clearly his initiative and his resolve to see it through…..
    If I had any respect left for him for some of the good he did do following his term in office I just lost it….I can disagree and still respect someone, but it is impossible to have any respect for someone who doesn’t accept responsibility for his/her convictions and action.

  4. Congratulations Day McKellar Team and big kudos to all of you for calling attention to this polital gaff. I’m very proud of all of you. Go get the Gold now!

    Mike is right…there is alot of information out there about this subject, but no one wanted to hear our side of it in 1980. It was shameful how the government pressured and threatened the USOC. It’s great that these students went after the hard facts.

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