If you grew up any time during the 60’s & 70’s in Canada, then the 1976 Olympics was most likely a big deal to you. The Montreal Olympics was a huge international event and a proud moment for all Canadians. The huge event that created a huge debt and a huge hole in our collective Canadian pride; we never won anything!
A typical Canadian commentary would report politely on how Canadians failed again and again, in and out of the pool. For me, as a budding 11 yr old swimmer I was looking for a hero and watched intently.
I revelled in the swimming show that Jim Montgomery and his American team put on, (the first sub 50 second 100m free 49.99 was amazing), afterwards I couldn’t wait for the next Olympics to be on TV. I was still looking for that home grown hero.
In the 70’s and the 80’s the Olympics was the only time that swimming was shown on TV, so fans looked forward to it during the long four years.
As a 15 year old in 1980 I did not have any hope of making that team but I was keen to watch swimmers like Graham Smith respond to his two fourth place finishes in his 100 & 200 Breaststrokes in Montreal but was hopeful too due to his recent world record in 200im.
Canadians were beginning to gain a great reputation again after the ’76 debacle. Young swimmers arrived on the international scene in a big way, like Peter Schmidt who broke the 400 free world record at the Olympic Trials in Etobicoke. Thrillingly a Kokanee* made the 1980 team! So there was loads for me and the rest of Canada to look forward to.
Then an indescribable even happened. A Twin-towers-like event in my adolescent mind; the Olympics was cancelled. Joe Clark like a sheep followed the Peanut President’s lead. A collective punch in the stomach for all sporting fans and athletes. A sucker punch that ended most swimmers careers.
The Peanut Farmer
President Jimmy Carter thought that by not permitting American athletes to attend the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the USSR would feel bad and pull out of Afghanistan. Joe Clark confirmed that if USSR didn’t get out of Afghanistan then Canada would also boycott. I couldn’t fathom it. [ 66 countries boycotted. ]
Later in my swimming career I got to know some of the Olympians from the 1980 team, they couldn’t understand it either. At that time attending one Olympics was a huge accomplishment, rarely did anyone go to two. Swimming beyond university age was rare so an Olympic opportunity usually came around in your swimming life only once.
After the boycott, swimmers seemed to just disappear. A team mate of Smith told me he packed a bag, his fishing kit, got on his horse and headed for the back country. He didn’t come back for a long time. (But I am glad he did!!) I think it was a reasonable response and probably similar to others. It wasn’t like you could send a tweet to the Prime Minister or President to voice your complaint.
Another swimmer began a long road down to the bottom of a Wild Turkey bottle but eventually did climb back out…about twenty years later. Many swimmers experienced depression.
The irony that America is now in Afghanistan is not missed on me. Without reservation I can still put my hand on my chest and say I don’t like the Peanut President. But maybe I should hate the tow-the-line Prime Minister of Canada. British swimmers could attend if they ‘wanted’ to. A close friend of mind told me she was called into her Headmistress’ office and given a stern hint that going to Moscow was unpatriotic. She went.
It was sad to find out that as athletes we were just pawns in the political game but even sadder to know that nothing was ever done to help those young swimmers. They had dedicated their entire lives to a sport so they could represent their country, only be left alone with their exploited lives and scarred thoughts? Maybe some compensation should be doled out? Even if it were only counselling! I’m sure there are a few coaches out there from that era that could use some counselling too.
As they say in the States to veterans; thank you for your service. So 1980 Olympians…thank you for your service, and happy 40th anniversary!
*I swam for the Vernon Kokanee Swim Club in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia & a young Bruce Berger made the 1980 team.