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U.S. Olympic History: American efforts affected by boycotts of 1980 and 1984
By Mike Finn
World politics and conflicts had affected the Olympic movement before the 1980s, considering two World Wars did not allow athletes to compete in Games schedules for 1916, 1940 and 1944.
Sadly, Cold War politics did the same thing to the Olympics Games of 1980 — when President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would boycott the Moscow Games because of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Then four years later, the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc nations did the same thing and boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Because of these disagreements, seven of the 20 wrestlers — 10 in freestyle and 10 in Greco-Roman — who qualified to compete in Moscow never did get a chance to compete in an Olympic tournament: Gene Mills (114.5), John Azevedo (125.5), Chuck Yagla (149.5) and Lee Kemp (163) in freestyle; and Brian Gust (125.5), Tom Minkel (149.5) and Mark Johnson (198) in Greco.
Of these athletes, Kemp may have been the most cheated … considering he was ranked as high as Dan Gable and John Smith by some when it comes to rating the country’s best-ever wrestlers?
For like Gable and Smith, Kemp was a multiple-time NCAA champion in college.
For like Gable and Smith, Kemp also earned a world championship in freestyle wrestling.
But unlike Gable and Smith, Kemp never won an Olympic gold medal.
Perhaps no wrestler on that American team saw his legacy suffer more from the boycotts than Kemp, who hoped to use the 1980 Olympic Games as a way to top off a career which had already seen him win three NCAA championships (1976-78) at Wisconsin and three world freestyle championships between 1978 and 1982.
“All he needed was an Olympic championship and it was going to be icing on the cake,” said Gable, who was to coach that American freestyle team. “(Kemp) doesn’t get the recognition that he’s due.”
Nearly a quarter of a century later, Kemp is still bothered by then President Carter’s decision to boycott the Games
“As most athletes we set high goals,” said Kemp, the Chardon, Ohio, native, who has started his own company, Forza, in the Chicago area. “I tried to set goals for myself that had never been done before. One of my goals was to try and be one of the most accomplished wrestlers who ever competed.
“I thought I had a legitimate shot at being an Olympic champion. That is the ultimate. When you talk to people and say you were a world champion, they say, ‘You were?’ Olympic champion is what people relate to. I wanted to prove I was the best. That is what I based my whole career around.”
And based on the fact that Kemp, a 163-pounder, was among seven American wrestlers who captured a medal at the 1979 World Championships, there was a good chance Kemp and his U.S. teammates could have made an even bigger political statement had they competed in Moscow.
Gable, also the coach of the 1979 U.S. World Team, believed this group of freestyle Olympians would have beaten the Soviet Union in the Soviet Union.
“I always thrived on winning in the enemy’s house,” Gable said. “I was fired up and was going to have this team fired up. We were going to win in Moscow.”
Gable said it hit him hard when he learned about the boycott that had been threatened for over a month. He eventually started to rationalize Carter’s decision — (“I started realizing my role in life and who was I to past judgment on the United States,” he said.) — but today can see no justification for the decision.
“After many years, I feel (Carter) may have made the wrong move,” he said. “It didn’t have any effect. They had the Olympics and it seemed like all it did was make another country want to boycott four years later. (The USSR led a similar boycott in the 1984 Los Angeles Games).”
Many of the members of the 1980 freestyle team did get to participate in previous or future Olympic Games: Bobby Weaver, 105.5, and Randy Lewis, 136.5, won gold medals in 1984; Ben Peterson, 198, was a gold medalist in 1972 and a silver medalist in 1976; Russ Hellickson, 220, earned a silver medal in 1976; and Chris Campbell (180) won a bronze medal in 1992.
But for the likes of Kemp, Azevedo (who later coached at Cal Poly), Yagla (later a top-rated NCAA official) and Wojciechowski, this would be their only shot at the Olympics. The latter three of these wrestlers did not hold the same credentials as Kemp, who first became a national name in 1975 when he defeated Gable (who was considering a shot at the 1976 Games) in the Northern Open and later became America’s youngest World champion at age 21 in 1978 before adding a second World title one year later.
Kemp, knowing the boycott could happen, was among several nationally-ranked wrestlers who decided not to attend the Olympic Trials in Brockport, N.Y. (Another was 1976 Olympian Jim Haines, who finished second in the 1979 Worlds.) But Kemp, No. 1 on the ladder at 163 pounds, decided to challenge for the spot and eventually defeated Dave Schultz after some prodding by his college coach, Duane Kleven.
“(Kleven) said, ‘Someday you are going to appreciate you made that team,’ ” Kemp recalled. “He was right about that.”
Kemp later added a third World championship in 1982 (after finishing third in 1981) but soon realized his priorities off the mat started to change.
“I knew there wasn’t a whole lot of future in wrestling other than coaching,” he recalled. “There were no endorsement contracts like what the track and field guys had.
I had to figure out what I was going to do so I went to graduate school. This was in 1983 and the world tournament was going to be in October.
“I still planned to go and was No. 1 on the ladder and was scheduled to wrestle Schultz in the final Trials. The night before I was to wrestle Schultz, I called Gable to tell him I wasn’t coming because it was going to be my last semester of school.”
Schultz went on to win the 1983 world championship, which made him the man to beat in 1984. Kemp never beat him again, ending Kemp’s Olympic dream.
“(Schultz’s) whole confidence level changed after (winning the 1983 Worlds). I wrestled Schultz 14 times and beat him the first 10 times. But I lost the final four by criteria scores.”
Kemp could have challenged 1984 Olympian Mark Schultz for the 180.5-pound spot. He also considered giving it a shot in 1988 but at that point Kemp had become a successful businessman in New York before moving to Minnesota.
“The thing that bothers me is that I didn’t come back and try,” he said. “I was physically able to but I had to make some other decisions. Once you set an ending point and reach that ending point, any thing after that was a comeback. Anytime you step out of competition for any time, you don’t come back as strong.”
1984 — Men’s Freestyle
The year 1984 will be remembered for many things. Fortunately, the playing out of George Orwell’s apocalyptic tale of a negative utopia was not one of them. Rather it was a time of Cold War, Ronald Reagan, Mikail Gorbachev and Star Wars. For the United States, and for the world, these were exciting times.
The world of sport in 1984 was no less thrilling. The famed Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson rivalry was in full swing as the Celtics defeated the Lakers in the NBA finals four games to three. College football witnessed quarterback Doug Flutie of Boston College throw a last-second “Hail Mary” touchdown pass to defeat Miami. The NFL saw the Los Angeles Raiders win their third Super Bowl title by taking out the Washington Redskins, 38-9.
College wrestling was also getting in on the action. Oklahoma State looked like the favorite to win the school’s 28th NCAA wrestling title when they handed the University of Iowa a crushing 24-6 dual meet loss in Stillwater in late February. So infuriated was Hawkeye coach Dan Gable (who flew in from Tbilisi, Russia that day) with the loss that he put his wrestlers through a grueling workout the next morning.
“When I saw the first sign of light I went down the hall and knocked on the doors to wake the boys up,” said Gable of the workout. “We went and ran down some streets then we turned around and ran back. Then we got on the front lawn of whatever motel we were staying at and we wrestled in the yard that morning. People were going to work at six in the morning and they were watching the Hawkeyes wrestle out on the lawn.”
The team’s efforts that day must have paid off as the Hawkeyes won their seventh NCAA title in a row a few weeks later by defeating runner-up Oklahoma State by over 25 points. Despite finishing the year undefeated in dual meets and earning coach of the year honors, Oklahoma State head coach Tom Chesbro was let go at the end of the season and later replaced by Joe Seay.
Yet it was the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Calif., which captured the nation’s imagination and produced some of the United States’ most enduring sports heroes. Names like Carl Lewis, Mary Lou Retton, Greg Louganis, and Joan Benoit will forever be linked to the Games of the 23rd Olympiad.
However, it was the Soviet-bloc boycott — in response to the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Games — that still lingers in the air every time the L.A Games are mentioned.
“I was very upset about the 1980 boycott,” said Dan Gable, head coach of both the 1980 and 1984 freestyle Olympic teams. “Being the coach and not being able to go was hard on me. When I first found out we weren’t going to be able to compete in 1980 I sort of had a mental breakdown. I didn’t know how to handle it. I couldn’t understand sports being involved in the political arena so I just took (the president’s) word that this was the right decision. However, I look back at the 1980 decision and I don’t believe it was the right thing to do.”
Because of the boycott by the Soviets in 1984, the overall medal count for the United States was tremendous. In all, the U.S. won 174 medals (83 gold, 61 silver and 30 bronze) placing well ahead of West Germany who took home 59 medals (17 gold, 19 silver and 23 bronze).
Perhaps no event was hit harder than freestyle wrestling. Out of the 30 medalists from the 1983 World Championships, 23 were from boycotting countries and there was only one defending World champion at the Games, American Dave Schultz.
“I’m still bitter over (the boycott),” said Randy Lewis, gold medal winner at 62 kg. “I was on both the ‘80 and ‘84 teams and there are still comments made about how we won but the Russians weren’t there. It’s hard to listen to because it takes away from what we accomplished and how good we were.”
1984 — Greco-Roman
The Greco-Roman style of wrestling had been Greek in more ways than one to most American wrestles who grew up competing in either the high school/college version of folkstyle or “catch-as-catch-can” freestyle.
That was a big reason why no U.S. team participated in the upper-body style of wrestling until 1956 … and another reason why the Americans failed to earn any type of medal … until 1984.
And once the U.S. finally reached the medal stand at the Los Angeles Games, they did it with force as the Americans captured four medals, including a pair of golds from Steve Fraser at 198 pounds and heavyweight Jeff Blatnick.
Greg Gibson, meanwhile, earned a silver medal at 220 pounds while Jim Martinez garnered a bronze medal at 149.5 pounds.
Fraser had the honor of becoming America’s first gold medalist in Greco-Roman after the Ann Arbor, Mich., native first upset three-time World champion Frank Anderson of Sweden and then scored a takedown with 41 seconds left to beat Romania’s Ilie Matei in the finals. But it was Blatnick who received much of the media attention.
This was especially the case after the native of Schenectady, N.Y., first defeated Thomas Johansson in the gold-medal match, then fell to his knees in prayer and celebration. A nationally-televised audience would soon learn Blatnick had overcome Hodgkin’s disease, which is cancer of the lymphatic system.
“I’m one happy dude,” exclaimed Blatnick, who had won two NCAA Division II national championships for Springfield College in 1978 and 1979 before making the 1980 U.S. Olympic Team which eventually stayed home because of the U.S.-led boycott against the Soviet Union that year.
Blatnick would later earn AAU national championships in 1980 and 1981 but soon discovered a lump in his neck in 1982. After his spleen and appendix were removed and he underwent radiation therapy, the disease went into remission and Blatnick made the 1984 Olympic Team.
In a year in which many top Greco-Roman wrestlers were not competing in Los Angeles because of the Soviet boycott, Blatnick upset Yugoslavia’s Refik Memisevic in a first-round match but lost to George Pozidis of Greece in the second round.
Still, criteria earned Blatnick a spot in the gold-medal match, which he won 2-0 after scoring a pair of takedowns in the final minute.
“This is the story of my life,” Blatnick said after the finals. “Something sets me back and the Lord gives me another break.
“I have really tried to put cancer behind me. It isn’t that big of a deal to beat it. The real battle, a lonely fight, was coming back. I did what I had to do.”
Among America’s other Greco-Roman wrestlers, Frank Famiano finished fifth at 125.5 pounds, while Abdurrahim Kuzu claimed fourth place at 136.5 pounds.