When the Olympics returned to Los Angeles in 1984, Kimberly Carlisle went to the Grand Canyon, avoiding the wondrous sights and sounds she couldn’t enjoy. She wouldn’t watch the next Games, either.
By 1990, she’d been retired from swimming for seven years. She worked in journalism and sales. She was married. She’d soon be pregnant with her first child.
And she packed her swim bag.
A business trip brought Carlisle to Moscow a decade after Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan, triggering the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, which denied her and 465 other Americans their dream.
Carlisle could not have redemption. She could not have recognition. She would settle for catharsis.
She remembered what it was like in Montreal, where any visitor could pay a small fee and swim at the 1976 Olympic facility, integrated into the city’s fabric. Finally, she could touch Russia’s once-forbidden water, too.
When Carlisle arrived at Moscow’s Olympic venue, chains wrapped the door. A padlock hugged the chains. Grass grew through the cracks of the empty pool. Tears formed in her eyes.
“The place was abandoned. The entire Olympic site was abandoned,” Carlisle said. “I thought, ‘That’s poetic.’ ”
Americans were at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, when only 14 nations competed and women didn’t. We were there in Berlin in 1936, when Adolf Hitler was given a worldwide audience for propaganda and anti-Semitism. We were there in Melbourne in 1956, when multiple countries boycotted the Olympics after Soviet forces killed thousands, crushing the Hungarian Revolution.
But a new Cold War chapter sparked Jimmy Carter’s stand. If Soviet forces — whose largest post-World War II invasion began on Dec. 27, 1979 — did not withdraw from Afghanistan, the president vowed the United States would lead a boycott of the Moscow Games.
“We’re looking around and we’re going, ‘Yeah, right. What idiot is gonna boycott the Olympics?’ ” said U.S. water polo player, Chris Dorst. “I started growing a beard and said I wouldn’t shave until Carter recanted. Of course, I had a nice beard going in September.”
The deadline arrived (Feb. 20) and passed without Leonid Brezhnev blinking. Two days later, Americans conquered the Soviets in “The Miracle On Ice.” One month afterward, Carter said there would be no sequel.
“Ours will not go,” Carter said. “I say that not with any equivocation. The decision has been made.”
Multiple polls showed the majority of Americans supported Carter. The U.S. was joined by West Germany, Japan, Canada and dozens more — though allies such as Great Britain, France and Australia participated.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 386-12 in favor of the boycott. The U.S. Senate similarly voted, 88-4. Still, the U.S. Olympic Committee had the ultimate say.
Pressured by the government and threatened with insolvency, the USOC voted 1,704-697 to boycott the Olympics on April 12, prompting an unsuccessful class-action lawsuit from 25 athletes against the committee.
“Carter blackmailed the USOC, said he was gonna drop their status, make it impossible for them to fund-raise, did some heavy arm-twisting,” swimmer Brian Goodell said. “Carter had other options to increase the pressure on the Soviets to get out of there, but this was a no-cost political solution. Who cares if hundreds of athletes suffer?”
Some took slight detours to untouchable legacies — like Edwin Moses, Carl Lewis and Greg Louganis, who became heroes in ’84. Some, like Isiah Thomas, reached the pinnacle of sport and still feel incomplete.
Some saw their prime wither before the next Games. Some 219 would never compete in the Olympics.
“I still think of it like the death of a loved one,” wrestler Lee Kemp said. “You never get over it
Do you remember Kemp?
If not, he understands. Kemp won just three NCAA championships and was America’s first-ever three-time world champion.
“You can win the Worlds for 20 years, but if you don’t win the Olympics no one’s ever gonna hear about you.” — Wrestler Lee Kemp, the United States’ first-ever three-time world champion
“You can win the Worlds for 20 years, but if you don’t win the Olympics no one’s ever gonna hear about you,’” Kemp said. “Unless you do it on the Olympic platform, people don’t really think you’re the best.”
Kemp, the 74-kg freestyle world champion in 1978 and 1979, defeated 1980 Olympic gold medalist Valentin Raychev shortly after Moscow. Four years later, Kemp failed to qualify at the 1984 Olympic trials, finishing second to eventual gold medalist Dave Schultz.
“The biggest thing was the mental part of how you see yourself,” Kemp said. “It’s not about the notoriety, but you’re doing it to be recognized in your craft as the best. I always saw myself as an Olympic champion.”
Does Brian Goodell ring a bell?
Probably not. He only won two gold medals at the 1976 Olympics. He was just 17 when he stood atop the world.
“I got to go. I at least had that. But 1980 was gonna be my moment in the sun,” Goodell said. “In ’76 you had Bruce Jenner, John Naber, Nadia Comaneci. They were the big names, and I thought I might have a shot to be like that and actually make a life out of it. That all went up in smoke. I would’ve made a lot of money. Things would’ve been radically different. I’m a little bitter about that.
“I was at UCLA and I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning to go to practice or go to class. I couldn’t sleep at night. I’m sure I was depressed. It was a struggle every day. It was completely devastating.”
Goodell retired from competition in 1981.
“The motivation was gone,” said Goodell, the mayor of Mission Viejo, Calif. “I thought, ‘I have to get a job and start a life.’ ”
Dorst is grateful you don’t know Marybeth Linzmeier. Otherwise, he might not have married her.
The couple began dating in 1983 at Stanford, where Dorst wouldn’t have continued training had they gone to Moscow.
“Had she made it in ’80, she’d have won a couple medals for sure,” Dorst said of his wife, who won eight individual NCAA swimming titles. “She’s tall, cute, articulate. She’d have been on magazine covers and met some Hollywood guy. Best thing that happened to me was that she missed that, but it has not been easy. Even now it’s not easy.”
Dorst participated in the 1984 Games, winning a silver medal. Linzmeier missed qualifying by .03 seconds. The wound remains too fresh for her to speak about.
“This is a very sore subject,” said Dorst, who was inspired to join the USOC to prevent future boycotts. “She missed by three-tenths after hammering the two women who made it at the NCAA Championships that spring. One day, bad race, all you get is one shot. It may not be fair, but those are the rules of the game.
“She doesn’t think of herself as an Olympian and it’s too damn bad.”
The couple live in California and have three daughters, all accomplished water polo players.
“In context, we didn’t get to go to the Olympics,” Dorst said. “If that’s the worst thing that happens to you, you have a pretty charmed life.”
Everyone took gold.
As the Soviet domination of the 1980 Games continued, American Olympians arrived at the U.S. Capitol to receive medals of recognition from Carter.
However, due to congressional oversight, it wasn’t until 2007 that it was made official — and clear — that the oft-forgotten athletes received the rarely awarded Congressional Medal of Honor — also given to George Washington, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison and Neil Armstrong.
“Nobody bothered to give us that heads up,” Goodell said. “It was more like, ‘Here’s a little tchotchke to put on your mantle.’”
Jesse Vassallo was first in line to receive the medal.
“[Carter] asked me how I would’ve done because we had a meet the same week as the Olympics,” Vassallo said. “I said, ‘I would’ve gotten two golds and a silver.’ He didn’t ask anybody else after that.”
Bill Rodgers sympathized with the unpopular 39th president, who’d robbed the world’s top-ranked marathoner of his best Olympic opportunity.
“I disagreed with him on that policy, but I admire him a lot, with his efforts for peace and Habitat for Humanity,” said Rodgers, who suffered a foot injury and finished 40th in the ’76 Games, then failed to qualify in ’84. “I know he meant the very best by initiating the boycott.”
The boycott ensured another unrepresentative Olympic field four years later, when the Soviets responded by leading a communist-bloc boycott of the Los Angeles Games.
“To screw up eight years of people’s lives over that was pretty selfish and shortsighted,” said Kemp, who finally reached the Olympics as a coach in 2008. “In hindsight, it doesn’t seem like it made a difference anyway, so we wonder why we made that sacrifice.”
For Kemp, for Linzmeier, for Vassallo, for so many more, the pain peaked long after Carter lost re-election.
Vassallo, who learned eight months prior to the 1976 Olympics he was ineligible to represent Puerto Rico, captured two golds at the 1978 World Championships and held a pair of world records.
Following the boycott, he suffered a devastating knee injury — requiring nearly two years of recovery — and the death of his father in a car accident. Vassallo qualified in 1984, finishing fourth in the 400-meter individual medley and falling .05 seconds shy of qualifying for another final the next day.
“Pain came at different times for different people,” Vassallo said. “ ’84 was a lot more painful for those who stuck around and didn’t do well. That’s when I said, ‘I don’t want my kids to swim. I don’t want to know anything about the water. I hate swimming.’ ”
It took until the end of the decade for Vassalo to return to the pool, when his first son wanted to learn how to swim. Vassallo continues teaching as a youth coach with the Pompano Beach Piranhas.
“Life would be very different, but it’s part of me,” Vassallo said of the boycott. “It’s made me see things the way I see things. I learned, and that’s the way I coach. I don’t sell them the Olympics. That’s the ultimate goal, but it’s not all you can get out of it.”
Carlisle couldn’t bear to be like Kemp, like Linzmeier, like Vassallo, like so many more.
After graduating from Stanford in 1983, Carlisle gave up the goal she’d given so much up to chase.
“I wasn’t sure I had everything I knew it would take to keep training and make the team. It’s sort of a crapshoot,” Carlisle said. “I didn’t want my career to end on missing the team.”
Carlisle grieved the Olympic theft for almost a decade.
In 1989, she sat in a New York cab, headed for JFK Airport. The city fell silent beneath a foreign radio report, seizing the driver’s focus. He was a banker back in Afghanistan. His family fled when the Soviets arrived. Finally, the invaders were leaving his homeland.
“In that moment, it was like, my life and his converged,” Carlisle said. “I had a personal experience with someone who’d lived through that time in Afghanistan and was now working far below his capacity, but still was alive and grateful.
“I don’t think I would have the compassion that I have if we had gone. The boycott made me see something way bigger than us. There are a lot more harrowing plights all over the planet than athletes training for glory.”
The planet now shares misfortune, grief, uncertainty, fear. COVID-19 has postponed the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo for at least one year. The cancellation of the first Games since World War II remains an option.
It would be devastating for athletes who’ve sacrificed so much, who’ve devoted so many years to a lifelong dream.
But they could still have peace. They could still find purpose.
“Though so many feel forgotten, it still lives on,” Carlisle said. “Though I don’t agree with Carter’s decision, I think he was very prescient in wanting us to see what he knew. If anything, COVID has shown us that we are one planet.
“We should see beyond ourselves. For those still carrying bitterness and sadness and grief, that’s a loss for them. That can be turned to such beautiful use.”