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U.S. Olympic Team Waves Goodbye To Its Dreams, Just Like Athletes 40 Years Ago

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Summer Olympics in Tokyo were supposed to start tomorrow. Of course, the games were postponed until next July because of the coronavirus. That has forced thousands of athletes to pause and reorder their training schedules. Some decided a year was too long to wait. And now those athletes share a bond with U.S. Olympians 40 years ago, whose dreams also ended because of factors beyond their control. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Wrestler Frank Molinaro was ready for Tokyo.

FRANK MOLINARO: You know, I felt like I was firing on all cylinders. I felt the same way in 2016.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: Frank Molinaro.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: The breakthrough performance.

GOLDMAN: 2016 is when he won the U.S. Olympic trials in the 143-pound weight class and almost won a bronze medal at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. 2020, he believed, would be better. But it ended amidst a pandemic. For the 31-year-old father of three young boys, a yearlong delay was daunting.

MOLINARO: You know, committing to another seven, 800 workouts, the weight management, you know, the stress on my family.

GOLDMAN: And he got lucky. Molinaro landed a job coaching college wrestling. It helped take off some of the sting when he ended a long career without an Olympic medal.

MOLINARO: You try to plan four years ahead, you know? And sometimes you try to plan 10 years ahead. And, you know, there's really no guarantee for your next breath. You know, the next day, you know, things can get turned upside down.

GOLDMAN: Forty years ago Craig Beardsley was locked into his plan.

CRAIG BEARDSLEY: When I was swimming and back in 1980, that's - all I was doing was swimming and school.

GOLDMAN: As a freshman at the University of Florida, Beardsley finished second at the NCAA championships in the 200-meter butterfly. In 1979, a year before the Moscow Summer Olympics, he won a gold medal at the prestigious Pan American Games. Beardsley was a rising star with Moscow in his sights.

BEARDSLEY: My focus was myopic. My world was insular.

GOLDMAN: But soon enough, the larger world forced its way in.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, the first Soviet invasion of a country outside the Eastern Bloc since World War II.

GOLDMAN: The U.S. response included talk of an Olympic boycott, pulling American athletes from a global event the Soviets were bound to use as a propaganda tool. Not surprisingly, most Olympians hated the idea. They suggested it would send a stronger message by beating the Soviets on their tracks and in their pools. But by March of 1980, President Jimmy Carter was resolute when he spoke to a room full of grim-looking Olympic athletes at the White House.

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PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: I can't say at this moment what other nations will not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow. Ours will not go.

GOLDMAN: Beardsley couldn't believe it would actually happen.

BEARDSLEY: I was like, why would they ever do something like that? You know, don't people care about the importance of the Olympics and what it stands for?

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AL MICHAELS: Five seconds left in the game - do you believe in miracles? Yes.

GOLDMAN: In early 1980 people cared a lot after the U.S. men's hockey team beat the Soviets at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The administration worried the Miracle on Ice might lessen support for a summer boycott, but a bitter U.S. Olympic Committee was forced to vote in favor. The U.S. was the most prominent of nearly 70 nations that skipped the games. Beardsley kept swimming but failed to qualify for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, which the Soviets boycotted. He says some of the 1980 boycotters are still incredibly mad, but he made peace with it.

BEARDSLEY: You know, I didn't have to risk my life. I didn't have to make a sacrifice greater than just not going to an event.

GOLDMAN: Beardsley says, however, the hardest thing about being on the 1980 team is, in his words, we don't know who we are. That lost identity was the topic of a Zoom town hall in April. Former medal-winning rower and longtime International Olympic Committee member Anita DeFrantz remembers being at a gathering where they were honoring past Olympics, and there was nothing to show for summer 1980.

ANITA DEFRANTZ: We are the team with no result. They don't know our names. They don't care about us. Nobody knows what sports we're in. Our glory days do not exist.

GOLDMAN: DeFrantz and other team members find it particularly galling that the boycott, in their words, didn't save a single life. The Soviets stayed in Afghanistan until 1989. But Rita Buck-Crockett, a top volleyball player on the 1980 team, says with the coronavirus, today's Olympians have a much different opportunity as they deal with forces beyond their control.

RITA BUCK-CROCKETT: You are saving lives by not going to the Olympics this year. As hard as it is, you have only one year, hopefully. And you're going to save a million lives.

GOLDMAN: If the Tokyo Olympics begin next July, those who delayed and then competed will be part of one of the most memorable games in history. In a recent letter to the athletes of the 1980 team, the current CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Sarah Hirshland wrote, we can clearly state you deserved better. And she announced they'll be part of the new U.S. Olympic Museum opening next week in Colorado Springs. The team with no result will at least have a permanent tribute. Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.