Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

August 3, 2008

The Olympians Who Weren't

The Brothers Caraccioli cataloged the shattered hopes and broken dreams of the US athletes who didn't make it to Moscow in 1980.

Max Lakin

Last December, members of the 1980 US Olympic team received honorary Congressional gold medals, a hollow reminder of what could have been, 27 years prior.

Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games is an account of those would-be Olympians, competitors who made it to the doors of athletic heaven and were turned away, forced to play an unwitting part in President Jimmy Carter's attempt to stave off Soviet aggression—athletes like Sue Walsh, who, as a teenager in 1979, swam the fastest 100-meter backstroke and never got to show the world, missing the 1984 qualifier by 0.01 second. At that ceremony in December, Walsh said she didn't understand the politics today any more than she did then.

Boycott is an analysis of the political imbroglio that led to Carter's decision, full of facts and twists that continue to be uncommon knowledge. Boycott dissects what Carter's infamous decision meant to 18 of those athletes, and what it still means today.

Jerry and Tom Caraccioli. Photo by John Filo.
"You have to ask the question: Will a boycott affect change? If not, then play the Games and represent your country proudly."—Tom Caraccioli

Jerry and Tom Caraccioli. Photo by John Filo.

Gelf spoke with Boycott's authors—identical twins and sports communications pros Jerry and Tom Caraccioli—about the legacy of the 1980 games, the controversy swirling around this year's events, and what it means to give credit to unsung heroes. The following interview has been edited for clarity. You can hear Tom and other sportswriters read from and talk about their work at Gelf's free Varsity Letters event on Thursday, August 7th, in New York's Lower East Side. (Jerry is unable to attend.)

Gelf Magazine: What prompted such a detailed examination, not only of the abstract events that led to boycott, but also of its emotional effects?

Tom Caraccioli: The stories of great people or athletes who go unrecognized are everywhere. In our first book, Striking Silver: The Untold Story of America's Forgotten Hockey Team, one of the profiled players told us about a relationship he had with a local business he'd been patronizing for years. One day the owner asked the player about the ring he was wearing. It was his Olympic ring. The owner said to the player, "I didn't know you played in the Olympics! After all these years, how come you never told me?" The player replied, "It never occurred to me." My brother and I thought: How many more "regular" people in our everyday lives have interesting back stories? The members of the 1980 US Summer Olympic Team had their dreams stolen due to reasons they had no control over. If ever there were stories that needed to be told, these are them.

Jerry Caraccioli: The athletes' stories featured in Boycott are heartbreaking, but we also wanted to put those stories into a context to explain why they were never told. In order to do that properly we felt it was necessary to explain the details of what prompted the decision to boycott, what the fallout was in respect to the athletes, and how it affected them then, and throughout their lives. Obviously because of the US-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, US athletes, as well as thousands of others from over 60 nations that joined the boycott, never got their chance to compete due to political reasons. The boycott became a statement by the Jimmy Carter administration against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

GM: How did you track down all the athletes profiled in the book? Were they forthcoming in speaking with you, or did they require some cajoling? TC: It took some effort to track down the athletes. We scoured US Olympic websites, and then worked the phones to try and find people who maybe knew some of the particular athletes. For others, we searched the internet. Luckily, we were able to find them. We only had one athlete who was not interested in talking with us.

GM: Then-Vice President Walter Mondale contributes the foreword to the book. Do you think there's an element of guilt when he characterizes the boycott as still "very raw"? How much of the Carter administration do you think was really behind the boycott, or was it rather Carter's attempt at establishing his legacy?

JC: Tom and I felt after talking with Vice President Mondale that his choice of words in characterizing the boycott as a "very raw moment" related more on a personal level towards the athletes. Certainly when the Olympics roll around every four years, those painful memories and feelings of what they missed are opened up again and will be for the rest of their lives. We didn't get any sense of guilt, but there was regret. The vice president apologized to the athletes, but he also said he still felt that the action the administration took in leading the boycott was the right thing to do. This was not a "legacy" issue for Carter or his administration. The boycott was a way in which the Carter administration thought they could non-militarily show their disapproval at the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, which they categorized as "one of the grossest displays of international behavior that had been seen in a very long time." Jimmy Carter actually called the decision to boycott the 1980 Summer Games one of the most painful decisions he had to make during his presidency.

GM: Did you try to approach Carter for his perspective?

TC: We reached out to President Carter on three occasions. He was busy writing and promoting his latest book and didn't have time to speak with us.

GM: Mondale likens the Soviets to the Nazis at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Would you say the situation was really that grim?

JC: We don't think it was that grim. The vice president used that analogy to show how both the Soviet Union in 1980 and Germany in 1936 were using the Olympic Games as a propaganda tool to flaunt and promote their legitimacy to the rest of the world. The vice president wrote in the foreword that Hitler was trying to use the Olympics to legitimize his hideous government, and also explained that the Soviet Union was using its hosting of the Olympic Games as a demonstration to the rest of the world.

GM: The same year, the Winter Games in Lake Placid went off without a hitch, in fact, giving way to the legendary "Miracle on Ice" story, about the US hockey team dispatching the heavily-favored Soviet team. Why do you think the Carter administration didn't raise an objection to the Soviets coming to the States to play? His choice seems a little off balance.

TC: That wasn't his decision to make. In fact, the Soviet Union did consider not attending the Lake Placid Winter Games. Because the discussion of the Summer Games boycott occurred only two to three weeks before the Opening Ceremony in Lake Placid, there was a real threat of the Soviets pulling out last minute from Lake Placid. But in most cases, all the athletes were already in the US preparing for the Games. The Soviet Union thought the best way to make a statement against the talk of a US-led boycott of the Moscow Games was to beat them in Lake Placid. As we all saw, it didn't quite work out that way in the hockey rink, or the speedskating oval with Eric Heiden. [Editor's note: It did work out in the overall medal count.]

GM: The book is timed well, with the Beijing games upon us, and there's definitely been a lot of talk and speculation about another US boycott, however unlikely at this point. How much was the book meant to dissuade a repeat action, if at all?

TC: We would love to say we wrote this book to steer US policy toward never letting a boycott happen again. That is not the case, though. We are pleased Boycott has elicited the type of sentiment in which it can be used as a historical primer for what happens when a boycott occurs and who is most hurt.

JC: Frankly, we wrote this book to honor the 1980 athletes who never had the chance to be recognized for their sacrifices to represent our country in the 1980 Olympic Summer Games. We're glad the book has accomplished that, as well as given their stories and this part of American and Olympic history some added context.

"People tend not to forget identical twins named Tom and Jerry."—Jerry Caraccioli
GM: The 1980 boycott, at its purest, and aside from the major geopolitical implications, was a lot about violated human rights (in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). Do you find it ironic that some similar themes, albeit less dire, are being echoed with Beijing? What do you make of all of it?

TC: The ironies are plentiful when comparing today's politics and the politics of 28 years ago. Ultimately, before any more talk of boycotts occur, you have to ask the question: Will a boycott effect change? If not, then play the Games and represent your country proudly. If yes, then some potentially painful decisions have to be made. And as we wrote about in the book, they may not be too popular.

GM: Stepping away from the grandeur of the Olympics for a bit, what's your favorite cartoon? Obviously I'm fishing for the Tom & Jerry answer, so you'll excuse me if I'm opening up some childhood wounds there. Have you two ever played on that moniker in working together in the past?

JC: I'm not sure they can be categorized as a "cartoon," but we were always Little Rascals fans growing up. Being named Tom and Jerry has never been a bad thing for us. It's nice that people are interested enough in us to ask about our names. One thing that is beneficial in the line of work we have been involved with for nearly 20 years is being memorable. People tend not to forget identical twins named Tom and Jerry.

GM: Your previous book examined the lesser-known 1972 US hockey team. Boycott continues the theme of chronicling the relatively unknown sports story. Do you have any plans for future projects in the same vein?

TC: At the moment, nothing is planned. But the idea of honoring and telling the stories of unheralded "forgotten" athletes is rewarding to us on a level we had no idea it would be. With Striking Silver, we were made honorary members of the team as their biographers and maintain friendships with the members of the team and their families. With Boycott, it's such a thrill to get an email or phone call from one of the athletes we profiled telling us how much they enjoyed the book.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

Post a comment

Comment Rules

The following HTML is allowed in comments:
Bold: <b>Text</b>
Italic: <i>Text</i>
<a href="URL">Text</a>


- Books
- posted on Mar 04, 10
Yaneth C.

Why do you boycott?

Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

Learn more about this author


Hate to miss out? Enter your email for occasional Gelf news flashes.


Gelf t-shirt

The picture is on the front of the shirt, the words are on the back. You can be in between.