The Olympics Once Were Here. Sort Of.

 

“Mary Decker crossing the finish line at Liberty Bell Classic with a U.S. record in the 1,500-meter event” | Photo: Keith Meyers, for The New York Times

Tonight, while one in seven will watch the Danny Boyle-directed opening ceremonies of the 30th Olympic games in Stratford, East London, perhaps a few will recall the Jimmy Carter-initiated “alternative Olympics” of 1980 held here in Philadelphia thirty two summers ago.

The 1980 Moscow games followed on the USSR’s desperate and brutal invasion of Afghanistan. President Carter’s subsequent call for an American-lead boycott was itself a desperate attempt at punitive diplomacy and it was met with criticism that it would be collaterally damaging for the athletes, a charge not unlike those against the NCAA in its punishment of the Penn State football program.

Carter promised an “alternative Olympics” for all allied nations joining in the boycott, first maneuvering towards a West African venue. Yet when that plan fell through, the Carter administration turned to Philadelphia, requesting the University of Pennsylvania to make Franklin Field available for a stripped down track and field meet–a seemingly perfunctory expression of anti-Sovietism.

An imitation of an imitation, the “Liberty Bell Classic” of July 16-17, 1980 failed to create any significant lasting impression on the American people, let alone here in Philadelphia. Most participants made the best of the impromptu boycott games. Harvey Glance, who had won gold in the ’76 games in Montréal, was forward looking. The disappointment “is history,” he said. “We can’t do anything about it. Let’s put on a good meet for the American public. Let’s forget about Moscow.”

Over 370 athletes from 30 nations converged upon West Philadelphia. Six world record holders were there. Some 25,000 (3,181 paid $1 for the opening day’s events; 21,111 paid $4-$10 for the second day) got to see “smashing victories by [Americans] Mary Decker, Steve Scott and Don Paige” of Villanova. Renaldo Nehemiah (of future San Francisco 49ers fame) “looked as good as ever,” said Sports Illustrated,  “in winning his race in 13.31, just .31 off his world record.”

The 94-degree heat was oppressive; the brown grass of the football field unattractive; the competition, provincial. Yet Villanova runner Don Paige, who won gold in the 800 meters, would have it no other way. Speaking to the Daily News two years ago in commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the boycotted summer games in Moscow, Paige maintained the cherished Olympic ideal.

“I still say maybe because Don Paige did not go to the Olympics, maybe I spared one life in Afghanistan. And if I did, I sleep really well at night because of that. It makes me feel good and proud.”

Canadian “Diane Jones Konihowski, right, pentathlon winner, in 100-meter hurdles with Cornelia Smith” | Photo: Keith Meyers, for The New York Times

About the author

Stephen Currall recently received his BA in history from Arcadia University. Before beginning doctoral studies, he is pursuing his interest in local history, specifically just how Philadelphians engage their vibrant past. Besides skimming through 18th century letters, Steve is also interested in music and travel.

Send a message!



1 Comment


  1. defo going in my dungeon

Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

 

Recent Posts
LOVE Park Renovations Hit Small Snag

LOVE Park Renovations Hit Small Snag

June 29, 2016  |  Morning Blend

LOVE Park renovations halted temporarily, DNC protestors not to limit themselves to FDR Park, mismatched styles on Ridge Ave, and applying the metric of hipness to Philly’s neighborhoods > more

Hidden Lens: Under The Spell Of A City Abstracted

Hidden Lens: Under The Spell Of A City Abstracted

June 29, 2016  |  Hidden Lens

In this first installment of Hidden Lens, a new series showcasing the captures of local photographers, we set our sights on the work of Rob Lybeck > more

Upscaling The Italian Market

Upscaling The Italian Market

June 28, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Squilla introduces legislation for Italian Market BID, PMC to pay up, church building coming down at 12th & Fitzwater, painting with light on Laurel Hill, and an illuminated mural on Percy Street > more

Long Before The SEPTA Key: A Penny Ride On The Omnibus

Long Before The SEPTA Key: A Penny Ride On The Omnibus

June 28, 2016  |  Harry K's Encyclopedia

Harry K. gives us a ride back to 1831 on Philadelphia's public transit predecessor > more

Learning From Dilworth Park's Water Magic

Learning From Dilworth Park’s Water Magic

June 27, 2016  |  Soapbox

Thérèse d'Auria Ryley examines how Philadelphia's relationship with water fountains and rivers is redefining the way urban planners design public space > more

At The Navy Yard, A Spectacular Speculative Office

At The Navy Yard, A Spectacular Speculative Office

June 24, 2016  |  Morning Blend

Danish architect Bjarke Ingels takes Saffron through 1200 Intrepid Avenue, state donkeys coming to Philadelphia for convention month, SEPTA cameras a money saver, and public pools start opening > more