Gold against the soul: An athlete’s story of the 1980 Moscow boycott

Story highlights

The U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow

President. Jimmy Carter made the call over the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan

CNN speaks to Don Paige, an athlete who missed out on competing that year

He had a chance of winning gold in the 800m against Britain's Sebastian Coe

CNN  — 

Don Paige could not bear to watch the race that he knew he could win.

It was Saturday July 26 at the 1980 Moscow Olympics and British runner Steve Ovett was about to win gold in the 800 meters. It was, arguably, the defining moment of a tainted Games. Ovett enjoyed a taciturn rivalry with another British middle distance runner who held the world record: Sebastian Coe, the man now in charge of London 2012.

Paige should have been there too. The American had run the fastest 800m time that year and was considered, if not a favorite, then certainly a contender. Yet he knew he had a chance.

Instead of being in Moscow, Paige was part of the U.S. Olympic team that had, along with 55 other countries, boycotted the Games in protest at the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan.

When the starting pistol was fired, Paige stood by a tree in the yard of his parents’ New York home as the rest of the family watched the race on his behalf. His father came to him afterwards and broke the news. Ovett had destroyed the field and won gold. Coe had run a dog of a race but still came a distant second for silver.

“To this day I have never watched that Olympic 800 final, I made a promise to myself,” Paige told CNN.

The invasion

In December 1979 the Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev had ordered the invasion of Afghanistan in an effort to prop up what was widely seen as a puppet socialist government in Kabul.

An insurgency raged, led by the Afghan Mujaheddin, an Islamic guerrilla fighting force, and such was the anger in the West and in the rest of the Islamic world that the insurrection attracted support from the U.S. and its allies whilst foreign Arab fighters flocked to join the cause.

Among them was an idealistic young Saudi called Osama Bin Laden, who had turned his back on the extreme wealth of his family to fight against Soviets, and it was here that the seeds of Al Qaeda were sown.

Back in the States, Paige had just completed the best training year of his life.

“To prepare for the Olympics takes 24 months to build the mental and physical strength, and ’79 was a very good training year,” he recalls.

His greatest achievement had been at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championship, where he had won both the 800 and 1,500m finals to become one of only a handful of Americans to achieve the feat.

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“I ran the 1,500m and, 28 minutes later, I ran the 800m,” he says.

“No one had ever done it before, the scheduling was so tight they thought it was impossible, but I won both events. That showed my form was good going into the Olympics.”

Focusing on his favored 800m discipline, 1980 began full of hope for Paige – then aged 23 – until he was invited to a reception at the White House.

“President Carter was there and the U.S. Olympic Committee selected a couple of athletes,” Paige recalls.

“And then I heard those words from Pres. Carter: ‘We will not go’. I thought, you got to be kidding me? We’re not going to the Olympics? I was heartbroken that politics and sport had mixed, but they always do, it’s no use pretending otherwise.

“I got my revenge. I became a Republican that year.”

The end of the dream

Carter’s words ended the chance that many athletes ever had of competing at the Olympics.

“The Carter administration thought that the boycott was a good, non-military way of protesting the invasion,” explains Jerry Caraccioli who co-authored “Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.”

“It was an attempt to show their dissatisfaction by boycotting the Games. But there were those who had their one chance, their one shot in 1980 and it was taken away from them.”

He did not know it yet but Paige would be one of those athletes. Understandably he was devastated by the news.

“You leave the White House and go home,” he says matter of factly.

“My coach (Jumbo Elliot) told me: ‘We’ve got to go to Plan B. Go to the track, cry for five minutes and never look back.’ So I cried, got it out of my system and I told myself that I will forgo my Olympics if I can save one life, just one life.”

Plan B was a far harder, less rewarding path to proving he was the best in the world. It involved winning the NCAA championships and the Olympic trials (which he did, with the best time of the year), victory in the hastily arranged Boycott Olympics in Philadelphia (which was achieved) and, the hardest of all, to beat Seb Coe.

Up until the Olympics, Paige had followed Plan B but, even with a Congressional Gold Medal around his neck – awarded to each member of the U.S. team that would have qualified – he had still found no inner peace and refused to watch the 1980 Moscow final.

A race with the Coe

Then Paige received a phone call and the chance of redemption. It was from friend telling him of a race meet in Via Reggio, Italy. Coe would be running in the 800m and Paige had been entered with him.

He jumped on a plane and arrived to register only to find that he had been cut from the race.

“I’m standing there negotiating to get back into the race,” he recalls, relishing every last detail.

“Seb Coe’s father (Peter, who was also the Englishman’s coach) tried to stop me, they tried to dodge around. I was brought up to race whoever is in the race.

“I told them I am going to show up on the start line of the 800m and you will have to physically stop me. I go to warm up, I take my top off and I’m thinking, will they remove me? I look around and no one is coming to remove me.”

The starting pistol fired and Paige found himself leading from the front with 300m to go, completely against his usual race tactics. Coe, who had a notoriously fast sprint finish, was on his shoulder as they went into the final stretch.

“We come off the turn, 100m to go, stride for stride,” recalls Paige. “Fifty meters, 20 meters. Before the line I’m thinking, ‘God darn it, we are going to tie!’ “

But, in a photo finish, Paige won – by a hundredth of a second. Coe congratulated him before walking off the track, though his father, according to Paige, was apoplectic with rage.

“Peter Coe is standing on the infield, chastising his son. He threw his sweats on the floor. Man, we’re not on the battlefield now. That’s why we race.”

The last chance

It was the high point of Paige’s career, so much so he still describes the action in the present tense. He did not make the cut at the 800m trials for the 1984 Olympics. Whereas once he had matched arguably the finest sprinter in 800m history stride for stride, Paige faded badly on the final stretch in his heat and finished fifth. 1980, it turned out, was his time. But he always had Via Reggio.

“I wanted to see, on any given day, how I would compete and my Olympic moments was then. I didn’t win the gold (in Moscow). I coulda and I shoulda.”

Paige had found his own path to dealing with the hole left by the boycott, a mixture of deeply admirable stoicism and redemption on the track.

Others had found it harder to cope with the loss.

“I may forgive, but I’ll never forget,” explained Craig Virgin in an interview with the New York Times before the Atlanta Olympic Games, 16 years after the boycott. In 1980 he held the world record in the 10,000m.

A reunion of the U.S. 1980 Olympic team in 2008 was the real eye-opener for Paige, where he saw some of the athletes “still living in the past, always going back to ’80.”

“I felt sorry for them,” he says.

Instead he remembers a word of wisdom from his coach – to whom he still refers respectfully as Mr. Elliot and who died eight months after the 1980 Olympics – that helped him deal with boycott and the questions of what might have been.

“He said, ‘Don, sport is important, you’re a young man but in 30 years you will look back at sport and see how small sport is and how big a sacrifice this is. You will see death, cancer bigger things than running n the Olympic Games’” recalls Paige.

“He was right. I’m 55 now. I’ve seen friends pass away, children die. I loved sport and competition. But he was right.”

Did it make a difference?

The question that still hangs unanswered is whether the boycott helped in any way to undermine the Soviet Union, or at the very least, in Paige’s words “to save just one life.”

President Carter’s deputy Walter Mondale certainly believed so.

“The Soviet Union later spectacularly collapses,” Mondale wrote in the forward to “Boycott!”

“I believe that our young athletes, who sacrificed so much, deserve great credit for their part in denying respectability to such an odious regime.”

Author Caraccioli is less convinced and instead focuses on the stories of the athletes who, like Paige, never got another shot at the Olympics.

“There are so many athletes who are unknown but perhaps their names would have been known a lot better if they had been in the Olympic Games and competed for gold medals,” say Caraccioli.

Paige, who is now a business development director for the sports arm of an engineering firm, is also not convinced by the effectiveness of the boycott, which came close to destroying the Olympic movement and led to a tit-for-tat snub of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by the Soviet Union and its allies.

“The Soviet Union stayed in Afghanistan and they boycotted L.A.. It was horrible for the Olympic movement and for the athletes,” Paige says.

The occupation of Afghanistan would last another eight long years, only ending when Mikhail Gorbachev eventually saw the economic, political and moral folly of the invasion and then occupation. By then the death knell for the Soviet Union was sounding.

Don Paige has watched every day of the 2012 Olympics on TV. He is at peace with himself, enough to enjoy the Games again. But it’s not the medal ceremonies he watches wistfully, nor the middle-distance races he used to excel in.

“No, that’s not what I missed,” he says.

“It was walking in the opening ceremony with all the athletes in the world. That was more important. To put my arms out to everyone there and say, ‘Guys and girls, we made it.’ “