The 1980 team gathers backstage before they are honored at the 2010 Visa Championships (Photo by John Cheng).
L-R: Paul Ziert, James Hartung, Ron Galimore, Luci Collins Cummings, Larry Gerard, Peter Vidmar, Beth Kline Rybacki, Amy Koopman Enxing, Mike Wilson, Kathy Johnson Clarke, Francis Allan, Marcia Frederick Blanchette, Bart Conner
Without context, the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials appears to be like any other meet of its kind. The best athletes in the country came together under one roof, and at the end, U.S. Olympic Teams were introduced against a backdrop of against American flag.
“For these young people, this is Moscow,” NBC’s Bryant Gumbel announced, as a sea of red, white and blue balloons descended from the ceiling, followed by streams of confetti.
The 1980 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team was comprised of: Bart Conner; Phil Cahoy; Ron Galimore; Larry Gerard; Jim Hartung; Peter Vidmar and Mike Wilson on the men’s team. Luci Collins, Marcia Frederick, Kathy Johnson, Beth Kline, Amy Koopman, Julianne McNamara and Tracee Talavera were on the women’s team.
Sure, making the 1980 Olympic team was an honor, a dream and a fulfilled goal, but it really wasn’t Moscow. There were efforts to make the entire U.S Olympic Team feel special – some went on a ‘tour’ of several mixed pairs events; some competed in the ‘Alternate Olympics,’ an event staged in Hartford, Conn., for nations that skipped Moscow. There was a celebration in Washington, D.C., that included a parade, a concert and a barbeque. And they received Congressional Gold Medals of Honor, the highest civilian honor Congress can bestow. None of that tempers the emotions that arise when the chance to compete for an Olympic gold medal is taken away in the name of politics.
For some U.S. gymnasts, 1980 was their only shot at the Olympics. Others were able to continue competing toward 1984. The boycott ended the careers of some. It extended the careers of others.
“We all have a piece of history, and this is our piece,” said Michael Wilson, the alternate athlete on the men’s team.
A series of events halfway around the world contributed to the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games. In late 1979, 52 Americans were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Iran. President Jimmy Carter’s approval ratings were plummeting into the 30s. And as the last straw, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Under intense pressure from the Carter administration, the U.S. Olympic Committee agreed to boycott. Other countries, such as Japan and Australia, followed suit.
“I have notified the (U.S.) Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow,” President Carter said in his 1980 State of the Union address.
The gymnasts, like all athletes affected, struggled to balance supporting the political decision of their president with their position as athletes.
“We’re a small group unfairly singled out to protest the Soviets in Afghanistan. We’re a group dedicated to something bigger than ourselves,” Bart Conner recalls thinking at the time. “But we’re supposed to honor the wishes of our Congress. Are we un-American if we disagree? Will we be seen as we selfish athletes for putting ourselves in front of our country?
For some, like Ron Galimore and Marcia Frederick, 1980 was set to be the pinnacle of their careers. Galimore, one of the best vaulters in the world, was a good bet for an Olympic medal.
Two years earlier, Frederick became the first American woman to win a world title when she beat a stacked field on bars – including Romania’s Nadia Comaneci and Soviet Yelena Muhkina, who earlier won the all-around title.
Frederick didn’t try for 1984 because she didn’t trust anyone that another American boycott wouldn’t happen again. It took 14 years – when her daughter was born – for her to finally make peace with the boycott.
“In 1980 I was in the best shape of my life. I was mentally and physically healthy,” she said. “When the boycott happened it was like the death of a loved one. I grieved. I didn’t speak to anyone. I didn’t really come out of my room. I left the sport.”
Galimore drew attention for the height he achieved off of the vaulting horse – he says even the Soviets took note of his technique. He was the first NCAA athlete to score a perfect 10. He was also a trailblazer of sorts.
“At times I was the only African American competing, but every place I’ve been, I’ve been welcomed with open arms,” said Galimore, whose father passed away when Galimore was just five years old. “The gymnastics community is like family to me.”
The effect of the boycott didn’t hit him until the U.S. team was honored in Washington, D.C.
“Once you make the team and you start to think more…My whole career, I was always looking ahead toward the ultimate goal and never celebrated my accomplishments,” he said. “Once I made the team, it was like a blank slate.”
For others, there was a blueprint for the future. Phil Cahoy, Larry Gerard and Amy Koopman all got to compete in Moscow – but not for the Olympics. The 1981 World Championships were held there.
And for a few, the boycott was a bump on the road to greatness at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Despite tearing his bicep on the first skill of his first event, rings, Bart Conner wrapped his arm and completed the entire 1980 Olympic Trials – and still won. He calls it a little bit ironic that even if the boycott had not happened, he wouldn’t have been able to compete anyway. Four years later, he stood atop the podium in Los Angeles twice – as part of the U.S. Team, along with Hartung and Vidmar, and an individual gold medalist on parallel bars. Vidmar won the silver medal in the all-around and a gold on pommel horse.
Tracee Talavera was the youngest of the bunch at 13 (then, gymnasts had to turn 14 during the Olympic year to be age-eligible). She knew that sticking around for another four years would be relatively easy for her, and she was able to move forward.
“I loved gymnastics. There were new skills to learn,” she said. “The older girls, some were thinking of quitting then. I felt much empathy for them. In four years, some of them weren’t going to be around.”
But the time 1984 rolled around, Talavera found herself in a different position. She finished sixth at those Trials, and though there was an unspoken rule that the top six would make the team, it wasn’t a guarantee.
“I didn’t fully appreciate what the Olympics were about until I moved into the Olympic Village,” she said. “Most of my memories are from workouts, the training camp and the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. That is the Olympics. You can step out onto the floor and twist your ankle, but nobody can take [the Ceremonies] away.”
The best way to put Kathy Johnson’s career in perspective is this: Tracee Talavera made a World Championships team when she was 12, though she was too young to compete. When Johnson was 12, she had just begun gymnastics – so in 1980, she was old for the sport.
But Johnson was going through personal struggles in 1979, which tempered the boycott’s effects.
“I can’t say that it devastated me,” Johnson said. “At the time, I was just still happy to be going to the Olympic Trials. To be honest it probably extended my career another four years.”
In Los Angeles, Johnson, along with McNamara and Talavera, were on the silver-medal winning U.S. Olympic team. Johnson also earned an individual bronze on beam, while McNamara tied for the gold medal on bars and won the silver medal on floor. Talavera made the vault final and finished in fourth place.
Beth Kline Rybacki didn’t fully comprehend what she had missed out on as 14-year-old until she arrived in Sydney Australia, for the 2000 Olympic Games – as a coach.
“Sydney was the first time I ever saw the torch,” she says, still fighting back tears. “It would have been so cool to be in an Opening Ceremony, to experience the Olympic Village…”
For Rybacki, who retired shortly after 1980, the question of “What if?” is still haunting.
“Sometimes I think that I shouldn’t have stopped, that it was a mistake. My life might have been completely different,” she says. “But at the same time, I can’t spend too much time dwelling. If I had made a different choice, I don’t think I would have been the same coach, mother, or wife that I am now.”
Those same questions also get to Luci Collins, who was 16 in 1980. Collins intended to continue through the Los Angeles Games, but never got there.
“It was not until my career was sidelined… two years later that the full impact of the boycott really hit me. My one chance to compete on the Olympic stage had passed me by,” she said. “This particular disappointment still hurts a little deeper because it was not of my choice or actions that this happened. And I do still wonder what if?”
On Aug. 14, USA Gymnastics celebrated the accomplishments and careers of the members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team. For many, it was the first time in many decades that they were in the same room.