It was like being kicked in the gut. That's how Ben Peterson, assistant wrestling coach at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, described it.
The wrestlers had prepared all season for this moment. They traveled from all over the country to showcase their athletic talents. They weighed in, they did their last workout. Seeding was complete and everyone was ready to go.
At the hotel, the night before what was supposed to be one of the biggest days of their lives, they were told that day would never come. The 2020 National Wrestling Championships were canceled.
"I want to become an athlete of influence!"
No one could have envisioned how 2020 would unfold. Who knew a small virus originating in China would have the global impact it has had? Who could have predicted that goals and dreams would have to be set on hold or forgotten completely?
With the onset of COVID-19, many athletic endeavors have been affected. NCAA championships and seasons were canceled, and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo have been postponed.
This is Not the First Time the Olympics has been Thwarted
This is not the first time the Olympics has been thwarted for the U.S. Forty years ago, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow. At the time, the Soviet Union refused to pull out of Afghanistan during war time.
The Olympics are supposed to represent peace and unity in a world full of political differences and hostilities. With the Soviet Union’s blatant refusal to honor that, the U.S., along with 65 other nations, chose to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games.
Many people viewed the boycott as a political move by President Carter, since it was an election year. According to Ollan Cassell’s book, “Inside the Five Ring Circus: Changing Global Sports and the Modern Olympics,” President Carter felt so strongly about the boycott that he was willing to take legal action. Passports were threatened to be withheld and the live broadcasting of the Olympics was banned in the U.S.
Many people strongly believe politics and sports should not mix. Swimmer Craig Beardsley was quoted in Cassell’s book saying, “If anything, you need more sports in the world and people to cross those boundaries and share what we have in common.”
Sport has a beautiful way of uniting people by speaking a common language around the world. But wrestler Stephen Barrett, who was affected by the boycott, says, “We athletes want to think that sport transcends politics but the actual truth is that the Soviet Union used sport to display their might and to showcase their seemingly superior political ideology throughout the entire world. Their use of sport was similar to the way Adolf Hitler showcased Nazism in the Berlin Olympics.”
Olympic Dreams Went Up in Smoke
Regardless of what side you stand on, one thing remains true. Cassell wrote, “Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Olympic dreams went up in smoke. Many athletes ready, willing and totally motivated to write great chapters in the Olympic history book never got the chance. To most, it still stings.”
With the boycott, so many questions popped up. Questions like, “What do I do now?” As an athlete who put in so many hours of training, do you just stop? Do you attend the Trials you qualified for knowing there would be no Olympic competition at the end? How do you handle your dream being snatched away from you?
Forty years later, many athletes are asking some of those same questions. In hopes to bring light to some of those answers, we interviewed six athletes (one also being a journalist) and an athletic trainer who were affected by the 1980 Olympic boycott.
The Experiences They Had
John and Ben Peterson, two decorated wrestling brothers from Comstock, Wisconsin, were nearing their retirement as the 1980 Games approached. Both had very successful college careers at the University of Wisconsin-Stout and Iowa State University, respectively. With a lot of training and hard work, both brothers qualified for the 1972 Games in Munich. Ben received a gold medal and John a silver.
Over the next four years, there were World Championship and World Cup victories heading into the 1976 Olympics in Montreal. There, John received a gold medal and Ben earned a silver. Leading up to the 1980 Olympics, they both won the World Cup in 1980 and they were positioned well to medal again in Moscow. Ben would have competed in Moscow, but John lost in the final wrestle-offs and didn’t make the team.
Currently, John is on staff with Athletes in Action Wrestling and is a spiritual mentor for wrestlers at the University of Minnesota, St. Cloud State University, Augsburg University and the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire. Ben is an assistant coach at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater and the author of “Road to Gold” (campofchamps.org).
Stephen Barrett graduated from Oklahoma State University after becoming an NCAA wrestling champion in 1977. As a wrestler on the Athletes in Action team, he competed in the 1980 Olympic Trials against the tough opponents of Andre Metzger, Jim Humphry, and Andy Rein. In his final match against Chuck Yagla, he was losing 14-15. He would have lost, were it not for his pin in the final seconds.
Barrett finished the tournament ranked in the top 6. The Olympic team selection process required the top six guys attend a final Olympic training camp to determine which of the six would qualify for the team.
Feeling unmotivated to wrestle those guys again with no Olympics to compete at, Barrett opted not to attend the camp, thus pulling himself out of the selection process. He is currently on staff with Athletes in Action Wrestling.
Madeline Manning Mims, another decorated athlete in the track & field world, actually came out of retirement to train for the 1980 Olympic Games. Hailing from Cleveland, Ohio, this 800m runner already had three Olympic Games under her belt, and she earned gold and silver medals in the 800m and the 4x400 relay.
In 1978, she married and moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, and spent her time ministering in schools across the country, blessing them with her musical gifts and motivational talks. She felt the Lord calling her out of retirement to begin training for the 1980 Olympics. After initially balking at this idea, she saw the Lord remove obstacle after obstacle to reassure her this was a call He had given her.
“More and more the Lord kept pulling on my heart and I would go different places and … in the middle of their preaching, [people] would stop and say, ‘You know, I don’t know why I’m saying this, there’s someone God wants to run again, I don’t know what that means but…’ And I was like ‘Oh brother!’”
Her coach was elated to move from Indiana to Oklahoma to coach her. Her husband, whom she thought for sure would be against this idea, was excited for her. She finally gave in and started training again. At the Olympic Trials, she set a new Olympic Trials record at 1:58.78, qualifying her for her fourth Olympic team.
Now Madeline continues using her musical and ministerial gifts to champion so many across the country and she is the founder of the United States Council for Sports Chaplaincy.
Swimmer Mike Bottom had the fastest butterfly time going into the 1976 Trials. Though he didn’t make that team, he continued training and swam for Athletes in Action Swimming in 1979 and 1980. He competed at the AAU National Championships 10 days after the Moscow Olympics and both his prelim and final times in the 100m butterfly were faster than the Moscow gold medal time.
He did make the honorary 1980 Olympic team and later received the honor to coach the 2016 Olympic swim team in Rio. He is currently the head men and women’s swim coach at the University of Michigan.
Elliott Denman is a racewalker and a journalist. He competed in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia, and while working for the daily New Jersey newspaper, Asbury Park Press, he has covered every summer Olympics since 1968, excluding the 1980 Games (although he did have credentials to go).
He also served as an international racewalking judge for 25 years and was the ghost writer for the Olympic chapters in Ollan Cassell’s book, mentioned earlier. Now in his late 80s, Denman still competes in Masters racewalk events and covers track & field events as a freelance writer.
Sherry Babagian broke many barriers for women in the athletic training world. After graduating from physical therapy school, she received her first job at Washington State University working as an athletic trainer for the women. Due to the realities of the time and restrictions for women, she worked long hours and in subpar conditions.
After working at WSU, she worked at Stanford. After several years, the training room was relabeled a “co-ed” training room, and she was able to sharpen her and her colleagues’ skills through collaboration. Because of her experience working at Stanford and with Olympic hopefuls at Squaw Valley Ski Area in the summers, she was able to serve the pre-Olympic teams in 1977-1978.
In 1978, she traveled with the pre-Olympic women’s basketball team to the PAC-rim countries and in 1979, she served at the Pan American Games. As the first certified female athletic trainer, the 1980 Olympic Games would have hailed her the title of the first female athletic trainer at the Olympics for the U.S.
After the boycotted games, she started a family and worked part time as a physical therapist. She retired in 2010 and has stayed busy taking care of her grandchildren, skiing, serving with Students International and at her local church.
All of these men and women have amazing stories and although we could not include every detail, we want to highlight some of the similarities they experienced to today’s current reality, the wisdom they gained from their experiences, and their encouragement in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 1980 Boycott Experience Was Not Unlike Today's Pandemic
Although the 1980 Olympic boycott is not a perfect parallel to what’s going on today, there are many similarities among the glaring differences.
The 1980 Olympics still went on while the American athletes and others stayed home; today, the whole world is not competing this summer. And even though it’s only a year postponement and today’s athletes don’t have to wait another four years to compete, there are some athletes today who have questioned whether or not to continue on another year.
For many, 2020 was going to be their last year before retirement or before they started a family. Either their plans need to shift or their dreams need to be relinquished.
Mims said, “The similarities is the fact that you have something before you that you can accomplish and all of a sudden, not because of anything that you’ve done … it’s taken away.” Babagian agreed that you’re not able to do what you love.
To Ben, the similarity is in the disappointment and a feeling he described as being kicked in the gut. John agreed, but the big difference between now and then, the athletes today are isolated and can’t workout together, whereas in 1980, the wrestlers could grieve together and take their frustrations out on each other on the mat.
Denman said that the situations are quite different and must be treated that way, but in both situations, “A lot of athletes will be victimized one way or another.” Barrett said, “Once again athletes are being asked to sacrifice for a very real cause. Fewer people will be impacted by COVID-19 and less people will die because of your sacrifice.”
Their Wisdom That Transcends
Nothing will stop you from being who God created you to be.
First of all, our circumstances don’t change who we are. In regard to working while training and in response to the announcement of the boycott, Bottom said, “Those are all circumstances that didn’t change who I was and who God had called me to be.”
Mims had opportunities to encourage other athletes with these similar words in 1980. “Nothing’s going to stop you from being what God created you to be. You’re beautifully and wonderfully made and your soul knows it and that’s why you train. That’s why you put in the sacrifice that most people would never do.”
And when people asked her if she was upset about the boycott, she replied, “I’m still an athlete. There’s nothing anyone can do to take away what God gave me.”
Even with great success, that doesn’t change who you are either, which is what Barrett experienced after his ultimate goal of winning an NCAA championship. Just because your circumstances fluctuate, it doesn’t change who you are at the core.
John pointed out that when we’re secure in our sense of who we are in Christ, we can handle the challenges and the successes that come. It’s easy to get caught up in the roller coaster of emotions, the highs and lows of sport.
In What Do You Place Your Hope?
Our circumstances will forever be changing and because of this, we need to hope in something solid. Babagian brought up a positive aspect of the postponement of Tokyo 2020. Today’s athletes don’t have to wait four years for a chance at their Olympic dream and there is a hope for Tokyo 2021.
For many athletes, especially those who are currently injured, this is great news. Although a year can go by quickly, there are no guarantees in what will happen in one year.
John mentioned a Bible study he had done that was about athletic goals. “The emphasis that [the study had] was when you put your hopes on being a national champion, being world champion, being Olympic champion, you’re putting your hope on something that’s uncertain. You don’t know if it’s going to happen. When we put our hope on God and His promises, we’re putting our hope in something that’s solid.”
Mims echoed those sentiments and said, “Sport is not our god. Sport can never be our master. It can never be the reason why we do what we do. It can only be a platform that God has given us to pay our vows unto Him in the presence of all His people.”
We compete because the Lord has given us the athletic talents and abilities to do so, but when we place our hopes in the things sport might give us, we are placing our hopes in something we cannot truly rely on.
Barrett emphasized that there is nothing more important than having a relationship with God. His hope is that, “Somehow through this experience you will be brought closer to the true meaning and purpose of life, which comes from knowing God and having a relationship with Him.” (If you’d like more information on this, click here).
There Can Be Freedom in Competition
As a follower of Christ, it is because of the hope we have in Him and the security we have in who we are in Him, that we are able to compete freely for the glory of God. Bottom brought up Eric Liddell who is quoted to have said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
Bottom encourages us to enjoy our athletic abilities because they’re God’s gift to us. “And I do believe that when we exercise those gifts that God’s given us, there’s a freedom there that we do experience God’s pleasure.”
Because our significance doesn’t come from our performance outcomes, we can compete with freedom, and we don’t have to be weighed down by expectations that are put on us. Barrett brought up the point that we can utilize our gifts to bring glory to God and through our gifts be able to share with others about God’s love and forgiveness.
Even in the midst of so many unknowns, Mims encourages us, “Keep your head lifted up, keep your eyes on Jesus. And keep going for the gold of the glory of God.”
Babagian brought up the point that we don’t know the purpose for what is going on right now and we may never know that. But we keep going for the glory of God because we don’t always see the long-term effects that our present circumstances will bring.
How You Handle Disappointment Can Impact Others
A prominent response to the Olympic boycott from these athletes was disappointment. Yet we don’t have to linger in that disappointment because God is always working behind the scenes.
The Peterson brothers felt the boycott really disrupted the momentum of USA wrestling. They knew they had a good chance of beating the Russians (and in other sports as well), and what better place to have it done than in their own backyard!
Mims was quite disappointed, especially since the Lord had called her out of retirement. Yet she continued through with the Trials with the motivation to make her fourth Olympic team.
Both Barrett and Bottom struggled with motivation. With no Olympics at the end of the final Olympic Training Camp, Barrett chose not to attend.
Bottom really struggled to get into the pool at his Trials. He said, “A lot of times in life we’re called to a certain path. And logic doesn’t give us the support or the motivation to move down the path. The current, present logic or present circumstances doesn’t give us that motivation.”
From counsel Bottom received from an AIA staff member, Craig Harriman, he was reminded not to question in the dark what God had shown him in the light. He was called to swim, so he swam. He did what he needed to do and trusted God to do His part.
Denman and Babagian Saw Things From a Different Angle.
They saw how the boycott decision affected those around them. Denman saw morales shrink and stories of lost opportunities across different sports.
Babagian felt heartbroken for the athletes she cared for over the years as she saw their Olympic dreams being taken away. Denman believed President Carter was politically motivated, and Babagian, as she looked back, felt anger that the athletes were used as pawns in a political decision.
Although we may not see the effects or the reasons we’re placed in certain situations, how we respond to those situations has a great potential to impact those around us.
In Acts 16, Paul and Silas were in a Philippian jail, possibly facing execution the next day. At midnight, they are not worried about what will happen, they are not sleeping as an escape, they were “praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25 NIV).
Through miraculous events, all the prisoners were set free, yet they all remained. R. Albert Mohler Jr., in his commentary “Acts 13-28 For You,” wrote, “The behavior of Paul and Silas in the midst of difficulty provided a powerful testimony to the jailer” (55).
How you respond in difficult situations can speak volumes to those around you, especially if they know you're a follower of Jesus. Bottom stressed, “It’s really important to look at things with an eternal perspective [rather] than a momentary perspective.”
Babagian said we must “trust that God has a purpose for this.” Denman mentioned the Olympics are only a small part of what’s happening now. The whole world is shut down. So many people are affected in many different ways -- physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Can God Bring Something Good Out of This?
How can your actions encourage those around you? How can your words bring peace and comfort to others?
Mims encouraged those athletes in 1980, as well as us today, with, “Something good is going to come out of this, because God has a plan that we just don’t see.”
Despite the disappointment, sadness, and anger, over time some of these athletes were able to see good in that decision.
Mims saw right away how the Lord was using her in those moments. She was given opportunities to encourage many athletes who were struggling during that time. She even had a chance to personally encourage President Carter. She was also given the honor to write and deliver a speech to the American people on behalf of all the Olympic athletes.
Over time, Ben saw the value of the boycott and how it played a small role in the destruction of the Soviet Union. He said, “It literally took a couple of decades before I looked back and began to realize if you would have told me the Soviet Union would dissolve, I would have been elated not to go.”
And years later, as Barrett saw the Soviet flag replaced with the new Russian flag on the Red Square in Moscow, he realized the boycott did “play an important role in the demise of the Soviet Union.”
In those moments of disappointment, sadness and anger, we don’t always know what the Lord is doing or how He could possibly use something like this for good. And He doesn’t always let us in on what He’s doing. But as we grow to know Him, we learn we can trust Him with the things we don’t understand.
Ben has learned to thank God for things “even when it’s extremely puzzling and very hard to accept and understand.” For a long time, he would tell people that God brings good out of our situations but then he began to tell people that “He’ll bring better out of it.”
In regards to the coronavirus, he said, “I’m praying that years from now we’re able to look back and see some very good things that are able to come from it.”
Encouragement In the Midst
In addition to their wisdom that transcends our current reality, they had some encouragement to help in the midst of everything.
The majority opinion was to not stop competing. If the Lord is calling you to keep going, keep going. Mims’s encouragement is, “Go as far as He wants you to go, as long as He wants you to go. Lift up your heads, this is not the end.”
Ben pleaded, “Please don’t stop taking risks, though there is no guarantee of success tomorrow either. But life is very bland without risks. If we fail to take risks, our results will always be negative.”
What Can We Focus On Now?
There are many things we do not have any control over, but there are many things we do.
These are some of those things we can be focusing on right now.
- John encourages us, “Keep making wise choices and be disciplined in a time when you don’t have people watching you … keep honoring God with the decisions that [you] make.”
- Ben challenges us to be thankful for everything we have and to not be afraid to make hard decisions.
- With so many questions with no answers, we can always turn to the One who does know. Barrett urges those who are interested in knowing more about having a personal relationship with Jesus, to go to this website.
- Mims reminds us, “There’s more in this world than just sport. … Keep your head lifted up, keep your eyes on Jesus.”
- Bottom suggested we look at the situation in light of eternity. Would you have chosen to compete with the risk of spreading the virus, or would you have chosen to obey the stay-at-home order and protect so many people at risk? You can turn the situation into a personal choice, instead of something that is being taken from you.
- Denman advised being intentional with this time. “This time can be used to study film to perfect your technique.” And he encourages us to “just hang in there, best you can. Take it day by day. Get in what you can with the confinement and everything. Just do what you can and maintain your fitness. And when the coast is clear, we’ll be back competing again. I hope it’s not too far off.”
- Babagian’s encouragement was along similar lines, “Find the joy in the freedom of movement. Get your body moving.” Especially since “one year is going to go by fast.”
We Need To Grieve What We Lost
This last piece of wisdom comes from Babagian.
It wasn’t until years later she felt the sadness for herself of missing her Olympic dream. As she was reflecting on her lost opportunity, she gently suggested that you allow yourself to grieve.
A lot has been lost, especially in the NCAA world. Even with the postponement of the Olympics, there are still things that have been lost. Today, 40 years later, Mims and Ben have seen people who are still hurt, upset and bitter about the 1980 boycott.
When we grieve, it allows us to acknowledge those things that were lost. When we acknowledge and take time to grieve for them, it allows us to let them go and it positions us to be able to embrace what God has next for us.
Grief is mostly attributed to death and at his mom’s funeral, Ben was reassured that although he was a wrestler, it was okay to cry. And then John opens up grief to other categories. He said, “When you lose wrestling matches, it’s like a grieving process you go through.” And he continued saying that going through the grieving process is healthy. “If we don’t, we kind of stuff it. It’ll come up later in a harder time to deal with it.”
As a Christian, John encourages others with 1 Thessalonians 4. “It says we grieve when someone dies but not like those without hope. So when we put our hope in the Lord, wow! What a difference!”
So take the time to grieve whatever COVID-19 has taken from you. Here are some resources to help with that process. Once you've been able to grieve these things, you’ll be more receptive to what the Lord has next for you.
We don't know what that will be, but whatever comes, may we have an eternal perspective, and in the words of Mims, “May the world see Jesus through our athletic adventures, in who we are. And never give up, never get out, never run away. But run to the battle and lift up the banner of Jesus before the world.”
Joel Pfahler contributed to this article.