They didn't go: Paige recalls 1980 Olympic boycott
DON PAIGE remembers being at the White House, remembers exactly what President Jimmy Carter said: "We will not go." "Mr. [Jumbo] Elliott drove me down to Washington," Paige recalled, referring to the legendary Villanova track coach. "A few athletes from each sport were selected to be there.
DON PAIGE remembers being at the White House, remembers exactly what President Jimmy Carter said:
"We will not go."
"Mr. [Jumbo] Elliott drove me down to Washington," Paige recalled, referring to the legendary Villanova track coach. "A few athletes from each sport were selected to be there.
"When I heard, 'We will not go,' I was like, 'Really? We're not going to go to the Olympics?' ''
This was on March 21, 1980; the Summer Olympics' opening ceremony took place in Moscow 30 years ago this week. But in a reaction to the Soviet Union's (remember those red "CCCP" uniforms?) invasion of Afghanistan, Carter had warned the Soviets to get back home or face an Olympic boycott by the United States and whatever other countries he could get to support his stance.
"Mr. Elliott said to me, 'Don, I'll let you cry for 5 minutes,' " Paige said during a phone conversation while he was vacationing in Durango, Colo. "Then he told me that if this is the worst thing that happens to you in your life, you'll lead a wonderful life."
More than 60 countries joined the United States, most notably China. Some of the countries that went to Moscow marched under the Olympic flag rather than their national colors, to show some protest against the Soviet invasion. And those countries' winning athletes were saluted by the Olympic hymn rather than their national anthem when they were on the medal podium.
Paige, a native of Baldwinsville, N.Y., was one of the best middle- distance runners in the world at the time, even though he was still a senior at Villanova. He was the NCAA champion at both the 800 and 1,500 meters in 1979.
Thirty years later, he still has no ill feelings toward anyone, or any country.
"I wrote an article for the school newspaper and the [Associated Press] picked it up," Paige, now 53, recalled. "Some of my teammates were angry, but I was of the mind that [Carter] was right. I joked that I became a Republican for that one year.
"And look at it now. Look who's invaded Afghanistan now."
There would be no Olympic Games for American athletes, but there would still be an Olympic Trials for track and field athletes, and a hastily arranged "Liberty Bell Classic" that would be held at Franklin Field and would be open to athletes from boycotting countries.
Some track athletes boycotted the Olympic Trials, which four-time discus gold medalist Al Oerter referred to as "a wonderful meet, but a meet for its own sake, nothing more."
"A lot of people felt just the opposite," Paige said. "There were some who didn't go to the Olympic Trials, but to me it was an honor to be a part of the U.S. Olympic team."
Meanwhile, the Olympics went on in Moscow, without Americans, Chinese, Canadians, Germans, etc. But it did have the top two names in the track world at that time, English middle-distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett.
Ovett was the world's best in the 1,500, Coe No. 1 at 800. Somehow they got confused, with each one winning the other's specialty in Moscow. After sitting out the Olympics, Paige had headed for the European circuit, as the best American runners do each summer. But he still was looking for a showdown with Coe.
"There was a lot of planning that went into that," Paige said. "I remember one morning in January, the phone rings in the hall of my dorm at Villanova, and it's for me, and it's Marty Liquori.
"The weather's awful, cold, slushy, and Marty tells me how Sebastian Coe is in Spain and training in perfect weather. That was his way of getting me not to miss my training.
"I'm thinking, 'That SOB.' I got dressed, got soaking wet, but I got in my training. [Liqouri] knew I had to get in my work, even while Coe was doing it in Spain."
Finally, a meet was chosen for a Paige-Coe race, in Via Reggio in Italy, a small meet that was held right after a major race in Zurich, Switzerland, where Paige had won the 800 and Coe the 1,500.
"Peter Coe, who was Sebastian's father and trainer, didn't want his son to race me," Paige recalled. "I'm in a meeting for an hour or so, listening to this, and all I want is to get out and train.
"Finally, I tell Mr. [Renato] Dionisi, the meet director, that all I want to do is run. I said, 'I'm going to be at the starting line, and if you don't want me there, have security escort me out.'
"I walked out and went back to my hotel, thinking I'm going to show up at the starting line and see what happens. So when the race is called, I walk to the line . . . and no one's coming to get me. We line up and the gun goes off."
Elliott had given Paige simple advice for the race: If he never gets in front of you, he can't beat you.
Paige can still give a step-by-step of the race, 30 years later:
"I was third or fourth at 400, Coe was in second behind a rabbit [pacesetter], which they always have at meets in Europe. I remembered what Mr. Elliott had said about him never getting in front of me.
"At the bell lap I'm in front of Sebastian, I'm in second place. The rabbit usually steps off the track at 600 meters, but this guy gets off 100 meters too soon. There's 300 meters to go, and I don't know if I was ever in the lead in any race at that point because I was a kicker.
"At 200 meters, Sebastian Coe jumps. I'm amazed at how fast he is. He's a half-step in front of me, but I don't want him to get too far in front.
"We're stride-for-stride. With 50 meters to go we're dead even. I'm thinking we're gonna tie. We both lean at the tape, he pats me on the back, I pat him on the back. I look over at my teammates and give them the thumbs-up. I knew I won, and Sebastian knew he lost."
Paige won by .03 seconds, and at the end of the year was ranked No. 1 in the world at 800 meters by Track & Field News.
"I was No. 1 in the world, but Sebastian Coe was a better half-miler than me," Paige said. "I just beat him that day."
So did he take that victory for his Olympic moment?
"No," Paige said. "There's only one Olympics. That was just a great competition that I was fortunate to win."
Paige now heads the Paige Design Group in Bahama, N.C., which plans and designs track and field facilities. Coe became a member of Parliament, and is now chairman of the London 2012 Olympic committee.
Earlier this year, Paige told Track & Field News what he felt about the boycott. In part:
"Hindsight is a wonderful thing in this world, and [Carter] had to make a tough decision which I'm sure crushed him when he had to make a stand worldwide . . . There will always be politics in sports, and I believe Jimmy Carter made the best decision he could at the time . . . 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."