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LEAD UP TO LONDON OLYMPICS: The boycott that crushed dreams


Freida Nicholls

LEAD UP TO LONDON OLYMPICS: The boycott that  crushed  dreams

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THERE?IS?no way I could have predicted that the Russian invasion of Afghanistan half way around the world would have such a significant impact on my life, and on the lives of hundreds of Olympic hopefuls from over 60 countries which boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980.
Barbados joined in the boycott, and that decision ended my dream to compete at my third Olympic Games.
I had enjoyed my best ever season in 1979, starting indoors with a world leading time in the 60-yard dash, and winning the USA National Championship title in the 220 yards at Madison Square Gardens, beating icons like Evelyn Ashford.  
I continued those winning ways outdoors, posting my best ever times – 11.3 in the 100 metres, 23.2 in the 200 metres, and 54.00 in the 400 metres. That season saw me capture the National Athlete of the Year title in Barbados and in the Tri-State areas of Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia in the United States. I was ready to roll, and I set my sights on the Olympics in Moscow.
During the year leading up to the Moscow Games, the interest in athletics in the nation’s capital rose to fever pitch. I was based in Washington D.C. and my track club, D.C. International, boasted several world-class athletes from the United States and the Caribbean. The most high-profile of these was American Renaldo “Skeets” Nehemiah, who was the overwhelming favourite to win the gold medal in Moscow, and who went on to smash the 110 hurdles world record with a time of 12.93 seconds, becoming the first athlete to break the 13-second barrier.  
The media became obsessed with our progress, and the Washington Post even embedded a reporter to follow our every move – right through the indoor season, at training sessions, on road trips and at competitions.
Hundreds of Washingtonians, including several congressmen and senators, would trek to the high school track where we trained, as news spread about the intensity of our training schedules and the quality of athletes who were destined to make the Olympic teams of at least six countries.  
We were like rock stars under constant scrutiny, but our sports psychologist, who was attached to the club, kept us grounded, teaching us how to be calm in the midst of the frenzy, and how to keep our focus. That was a heady time, and the adrenalin was strong and sustained as we forged on to realize our dream –  to compete at the Olympics in Moscow.
Then the hammer dropped! Barbados joined the US-led boycott and would not be sending a team to Moscow. OMG! The boycott signalled the end of my athletic career, as time was starting to take its toll, and I retired in 1981.
Alas, my teammate “Skeets” would never be an Olympian. His dream was shattered even more than mine. I, at least, had been there. The 110-metre hurdles event was won by East Germany’s Thomas Munkelt in the pedestrian time of 13.39. “Skeets” went on to play football for the San Francisco 49ers
in California, but his heart was not in it, and he never regained that passion that drove him to excel in track. He retired a couple of years later, and became a sports management and marketing agent representing professional athletes including Justin Gatlin and our own Obadele Thompson.
The influence of politics at the Olympics had now become a worrisome challenge for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), who in the previous Games had to contend with the boycott of African countries in Montreal in 1976, with 24 teams opting to pull out because of the New Zealand rugby team’s inclusion after they played in apartheid South Africa.  
The debate over whether the Games should be politicized became more vocal, with the new IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch making his position abundantly clear, that politics has no place in sport.
Politics would continue to rear its head during the next Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984, as the Soviet Union and several of its allies boycotted the competition. Their non-participation was generally seen as retaliation for the US-instigated boycott of the Moscow Olympics, four years earlier.
It is believed that the rigours of sports prepare athletes not only to compete at the highest level, but to tap into those experiences in order to solve problems and overcome difficulties. Research has shown that companies and governments the world over-embrace Olympians and international athletes in their workforce, knowing that they have been through the fire and emerged the better for it.
Maybe the 1980 Moscow boycott had a plus after all.
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