Skip to comments.In 1980, the Soviets Turned the Olympics Into the Games of Shame
Posted on 07/20/2008 1:17:03 PM PDT by Marc Tumin
To most Americans, the 1980 Olympics never happened.
The Carter administration sponsored a boycott ostensibly designed to punish the Soviet Union for its invasion of Afghanistan.
The U.S. government used all its diplomatic power to get its allies in the Cold War to join the boycott. More than 40 countries went along. With no Americans participating, NBC canceled its coverage of the Games. Most American newspapers, which had planned to send hundreds of reporters and photographers to Moscow, scrubbed their plans, too.
In all, no more than 20 American reporters traveled to Moscow for the Games.
I was one of them.
It was a depressing three weeks for someone like myself, who had never been to the USSR. To begin with, Moscow under the Soviets was as dismal as you could imagine.
There was an air of suspicion everywhere. Riding the bus to the main stadium for the opening ceremony, I could see a soldier every 10 feet or so along the way at the curb on each side of the road, with an automatic rifle at the ready.
If you rode the subway to the stadium station, you had to show your ticket or credential six or seven times, each time passing through a line of soldiers deployed like skirmishers, before you reached the stadium.
Inside the stadium, the press seats were separated from the Russian spectators by a full section of empty seats except that, in every other row, halfway between the press section and the spectators, was a single Soviet soldier.
And if you waited until everyone had left the stadium, you could see that the entire front row all the way around the stadium was occupied by soldiers in uniform. Every seat. They didn't speak to each other. They didn't smoke or look anywhere except straight ahead. They just sat there until they were told they could go.
It was an eerie sight.
What happened in the track stadium was just as bad.
The Soviets cheated.
TO CATCH A CHEAT
I had never heard of anyone cheating at a track meet before. For that matter, it had never even occurred to me that someone would, or could, cheat in track. So it took me a while to realize what was going on.
But the Soviets cheated: five gold medals worth, at least.
They cheated in three men's field events the triple jump, the discus and the javelin and in the men's and women's 1,600-meter relays.
I was the one who caught them at it.
It started with the triple jump, on the second day of track and field competition. The two best triple jumpers in the world that year were Joao de Oliveira of Brazil, the world record-holder at 58 feet 8.5 inches, and Ian Campbell of Australia. But the winner was the USSR's Jaak Uudmäe, who took the gold with 56-11.25.
Oliveira and Campbell each had several jumps over 57 feet, and each had at least one estimated to be more than 58, but after each of those jumps, and sometimes with a few seconds' hesitation, a judge's red flag indicated a foul.
Campbell protested several of the fouls, but the Soviet officials waved him off and quickly raked over his marks in the pit. Oliveira was more polite, but his coach told me the next day that he knew he had been cheated. "It was the first time I ever saw Joao cry," he said.
In all, the two best jumpers in the world were charged with nine fouls out of 12 jumps. Believe me, this doesn't happen in real life. Jumpers that good rarely foul.
HOW COULD IT HAPPEN?
In previous Olympics, the members of the Council of the International Amateur Athletic Federation, which supervises Olympic track and field, had always stationed a red-coated member of the council on the field, one for each event, to keep an eye on the judging a good idea since all the officials are from the home country.
But after the first day, the Soviets came to Adriaan Paulen, the IAAF's president, and complained that their officials were upset and insulted because the IAAF officials were watching them so closely.
The unspoken message was that if Paulen would remove the IAAF council members from the field, the USSR and its allies would support Paulen's bid for re-election as IAAF president in 1981. Whatever his motives, Paulen ordered the council members off the field.
That made it easy for the Soviets to cheat. All they had to do was decide how. In the case of the triple jump, they called fouls when none existed.
I called up the Australian delegation that night and managed to get Ian Campbell on the phone. He told me that when he tried to see where he had fouled, the officials wouldn't let him get close to the take-off board and pushed him away. And the sand was quickly raked smooth, making further protest impossible.
The Australian team leaders hand-delivered a written protest almost immediately, but the IAAF leadership denied ever receiving it. I wrote about the triple jump in The New York Times, but since there was no way to prove cheating had occurred, I concentrated on the unprecedented absence of the red-coated IAAF officials from the field of competition.
Two days later, in the javelin throw, it happened again this time right in front of me. Dainis Kula, a Soviet javelin thrower, had fouled on his first two throws. I watched his third throw land tail-first, his third foul, which meant he was eliminated from the final three throws. I wrote down "F" on my scoresheet, but when I looked up the Russian officials were measuring Kula's throw!
I said to the British reporter next to me, "Did you see that!?" He said, "Well, I did think it came down a bit tail first."
Instead of being eliminated, Kula went on to win the gold medal with a legal throw of 299 feet, 2 inches, but he never should have gotten the chance.
That night, I wrote another story for The Times, covering the javelin incident by saying that there had been complaints about the officiating in that event as well as the triple jump and quoting several members of the IAAF council who were quite upset by the situation. They could see the monkey business even from their seats in the grandstand.
At the same time, Paulen and the two technical delegates told us, "The officiating has been excellent. We have received no complaints."
Again, nobody could absolutely prove that cheating was going on, so I couldn't make that accusation in The Times. But I tried to write it so that anyone reading between the lines knew something fishy was going on.
The next morning, I was watching some trial heats when a Soviet "journalist" came up to me and started chatting. He asked me what I had written about yesterday's competition. Somehow, I had the feeling he already knew, courtesy of the Soviet embassy in Washington and the U.N delegation in New York, which always monitored the U.S. newspapers closely and sent daily reports back to Moscow. Was he just being friendly, or was there an implied threat? I wasn't sure.
That afternoon, I wasn't paying much attention to the discus throw, because there were several important races on the track. But Bill Peck, a knowledgeable track guy, was watching the discus closely, along with a friend. Both of them saw the discus officials mark the final throw of Luis Delis of Cuba short by what they thought was at least a couple of feet. Other journalists said they had seen the same thing.
Since the winning throw of Viktor Rashchupchin of the USSR was only 13 inches better than Delis' short-marked throw, there was a widespread feeling that Delis had been cheated out of the gold.
I know Delis thought he was cheated. I asked him a couple of years later, and he said so. He had no doubt he was cheated, and he still thinks so.
That night, the IAAF Council revolted, voting 16-3 to overrule the president and reclaim their positions on the field. They did so the next morning, on the sixth day of the nine-day competition.
Immediately, the overt cheating on the field stopped, but the Soviets still had a couple of cards up their sleeves.
PULLING 2 FAST ONES
In the 1,600-meter relays, the rules required that the runners who ran in the final had to be the same ones who ran in the qualifying heats. But the best Soviet 400-meter man, Viktor Markin, had run three hard races to win the individual 400 meters, and in the relay heats, the Soviets ran their fifth-best 400 man, Viktor Burakov, instead of Markin. In the final, a rested Markin replaced Burakov and was able to edge East Germany's anchor man, Volker Beck, by a step for first place.
The Soviets pulled the same trick in the women's relay, holding out their two 400-meter individual finalists from the heats, and then inserting them, well-rested, in the final. Again, the Soviets won the gold medals by a meter or so.
How did they get away with it? I called John Holt, the secretary of the IAAF, at his hotel that night. I was the only journalist who had noted the switch, probably because I was hot on the cheating story.
"John," I said, "I presume you have three letters from doctors about the Soviet 4x400 relay runners."
"Yes, we do, Jim," sighed Holt. "And we're not very happy about it."
But there was nothing the IAAF could do. They knew those doctors' letters, each citing medical reasons for the replacement runners, were as phony as a lead ruble, but the IAAF had to accept them.
So there it was five Olympic championships stolen, right out in plain sight, in front of tens of thousands of people.
While it was great to beat everybody with the story, it was really frustrating to see it happening and be unable to do a thing about it.
A month or so later, I had a chance to write the full story, with all the details confirmed, for Track & Field News, from which it was widely picked up in Europe. But the greatest satisfaction came a year later, when Paulen was defeated for re-election.
Meanwhile, away from the track other strange things had been happening. I could tell that somebody had been regularly going through my clothes and papers in the hotel room. They had done a pretty good job of putting things back the way they found them, but somehow I knew that things weren't exactly the same. Of course, I told myself, everyone who visits the USSR endures room searches.
Then one day while I was working in the press center, a Russian came up to me and asked if I had any blue jeans ("blujinz") I would sell him, or did I want to change some dollars for rubles ("vairy gud praice"). Knowing almost anything involving money in the USSR could be construed as an "economic crime," I said no. Anyway, what was I going to do with extra rubles?
The next day, in the press center men's room, another Russian wanted to sell me a set of silver Olympic commemorative coins. Gave me quite a pitch. "Vairy gud praice," said he. "Thanks, but no thanks," said I.
By this time I was beginning to see KGB guys under the bed. As the old saying goes, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you."
But what really got to me was the tall Russian who knocked on the door of The New York Times office in the press center while I was working there alone the day before the end of the Games.
In halting English, he said he was a writer from Leningrad, and he asked me to take the manuscript of a novel he had written and get it to the Arbor Press in Ann Arbor, Mich. The text was typed on onion paper and rolled up inside some film cassettes.
He was very appealing. He sounded very legitimate and totally convincing, and I had some vague memory that Arbor Press was indeed the publisher of many Russian anti-Soviet works.
But somehow I had the feeling that if any place in the world was bugged by the KGB, it had to be The New York Times office in the press center in Moscow. So I said, "Let me think about it. Come back tomorrow at 3 o'clock."
He never did come back. Maybe he was for real and had been nabbed by the KGB, always a possibility in those days. Maybe he was for real and just couldn't get back into the press center. I felt rotten about turning him down.
But on the other hand, if it was a set-up, I was sure going to feel stupid when the guys at the airport said to me, "Ah, Mr. Dunaway, what are these little film canisters you're taking home? Hmmm, very interesting. Why don't you come with us and tell us what you are doing with this writing?"
Craig Whitney, who was The Times' Moscow bureau chief, said I had done the right thing, but I still think about that "novelist" from Leningrad. I wonder if his story was true, and what happened to him and his work.
BACK ON THE TRACK
It's a pity to write this much about the Moscow Games and not mention some of the really good things that happened there. Especially the two classic races between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett of Britain, in which Ovett upset Coe in the 800 meters, and Coe came back to surprise Ovett in the 1,500. The two Brits, and the two exciting races they ran in Moscow, were high points, not just of the Games, but of the sport's history.
When our plane home left the ground a day or two later, the passengers all broke into spontaneous applause. (I subsequently discovered that the same thing happened just about every time a plane took off from the Soviet Union. Everybody was so glad to be out of that oppressive atmosphere!) I have often wondered what the Russians on the plane thought, or if any of them joined in the applause, too at some personal risk, perhaps.
Back in New York, it took me several months to get over the soul-deadening effects of those three weeks in Moscow. Even today, the gloom of those days still haunts my memory.
A year later, on a plane to Helsinki, I told my seat mate, a Finnish businessman, about the Soviets' Olympic cheating. He smiled and said, "Well, you have to remember two things about the Russians. They are very patriotic, and very stupid."
Copyright 2008 The Austin American-Statesman. All rights reserved.
Amazing how much damage a one term president can do in 4 years.
So he punishes the athletes.
Typical lib reporter. He probably complained about Reagan's 'Trust, but verify' policy during the 80s.
A friend of the family was an Olympic swimmer who was due to travel to the games. Thanks to all of the Carter voters, he did not get his chance in life.
Politicians should be held accountable, as we are. Carter, what an ass.
However, when a Republican wins an election the EneMedia lead with the word "Cheat."
the 1972 Summit Series was the first hockey event between communist USSR and NHL all stars from Canada....in the final and decisive game, played in Moscow, the Russians had Tretiak, their goalie, protect a goal in which the netting was wound tighter then rubber...
early in the first period the Canadians scored a goal but the light never went on and the puck ricocheted out of the net almost as fast as it went in because of the tight netting...the Canadians lifted their sticks to celebrate then looked on in disbelief when the goal was not counted...
the game was tied late in the third period when the same EXACT thing happened....this time the Canadians continued the celebration, forcing the Soviet officials on hand to count the goal...Canada won the game and the series...
btw- in 1980 I was a 16YO Olympic hopeful training for the decathlon.....my hatered for jimmah carter deepened the way he made our athlete’s stay home...just about all who were pure amatuers with many living on food stamps and working part time jobs while they trained for the olympics...this was on the heels of the hostage crisis in Iran...
Fascinating story. Thanks for posting.
Yes, we are preparing for “Carter II”, the sequel. In theaters 1/20/2009.
When you sneeze in your hotel room in a communist country, don’t be surprised if your lamp says “gesundheit!”
****btw- in 1980 I was a 16YO Olympic hopeful training for the decathlon.....my hatered for jimmah carter deepened the way he made our athletes stay home...****
You mean you didn’t go to the Freedom Games held in opposition to the Moscow games and win one of those gold plated Liberty Bell coin banks?
I have two of them unplated.
Big mistake on Carter’s part. Just as dumb for the Soviets to boycott LA four years later.
Didn’t you read the article? Even if your friend had gone, he’d have been cheated out of any medal he might have won.
Sometimes, the only way to win is not to play. Carter was an ass then and he’s an ass now, but boycotting the Olympics was the right thing to do. I just wish he’d done more (and less, but that’s probably one wish too far).
Just like in Pravda! Except he was writing for the New York Times.
Ooops, no difference.
A better bet would be that the editor would spill his guts nightly over vodka and flattery.
Some of the teddy bears which were sold as mementos of the Moscow Olympics were made by prisoners in the Gulag.
It has been said that they also used some prisoner labor on the construction of the Olympic venues when they were running short of time.
For that alone, the communist Olympics should have been disqualified as Olympic games.