90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
PLEDGE NOW
Here and Now with Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Runner Reflects On 1980 U.S. Olympic Boycott

American distance runner Craig Virgin is pictured circa 1985. (Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

American distance runner Craig Virgin is pictured circa 1985. (Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

Oregon had Steve Prefontaine. Illinois had Craig Virgin. Both high school were runners from small towns who reached world class heights.

Prefontaine grew up in Coos Bay. He went to the University of Oregon and became a legend, running with a passion that set the track on fire. Tragically, Pre died in a car crash in 1975, his promise unfulfilled.

Virgin was born in southern Illinois with a congenital urological disease that didn’t stop him from also becoming a legendary runner in his home state and beyond. He went to the University of Illinois and won Big Ten and NCAA titles. Virgin is also the only American man to win the World Cross Country Championships. He did that twice.

There’s not an Olympics that goes by, or an Olympics trials that goes by, that I do not think of that boycott in 1980.
– Craig Virgin

Today, he still lives in southern Illinois, where he runs a sports marketing consulting firm. He also helps his mom and dad on the family’s farm. And in a way, his promise, like Pre’s, wasn’t completely fulfilled.

We wanted to talk to Craig Virgin because the Winter Olympics in Sochi reminded us that the last time the Olympics were held in Russia, the U.S. didn’t send a team.

The Soviet Union, as it was known then, had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. This was the Cold War era and President Jimmy Carter responded by calling for a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. He also instituted a grain embargo that hurt farmers like the Virgins because they could no longer sell their grain to the Soviets.

That financial pain was magnified by the emotional toll the boycott took on Virgin and hundreds of other athletes who made the U.S. Olympic team that year. Virgin calls it the “team to nowhere.” He made three Olympic teams — 1976, 1980 and 1984, but says Moscow was his best chance to medal.

“There’s not a year that goes by, and there’s not an Olympics that goes by, or an Olympics trials that goes by, that I do not think of that boycott in 1980,” he told Here & Now’s Robin Young.

He will say a lot more in a book he is working on with Randy Sharer, a writer at the Bloomington Pantagraph newspaper in Illinois. The working title is “Virgin Territory: The Story of America’s Renaissance Runner.”

They are looking for a publisher but they gave me a sneak peak and there’s some great stuff, including details on the pressure the Carter administration put on the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) to approve the boycott. That pressure, according to the book, included a threat to pull a $16 million federal grant to the USOC unless it decided not to send the American athletes to Moscow.

In the end, the committee’s vote to do exactly that was overwhelming. And the Soviets responded four years later by boycotting the summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

As Craig Virgin says today, the boycotts really didn’t accomplish anything politically. They only hurt the athletes. Still do.

Alex Ashlock is a producer and director for Here & Now.

Guest

  • Craig Virgin, long distance runner and founder of Front Runner Inc., a sports marketing company. He tweets @CraigVirgin.

Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
Spotlight

Here & Now resident chef and cookbook author Kathy Gunst shares her list of the best cookbooks of the year.

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

December 18 Comment

College Counselor: ‘A Deferral Is Not A Denial’

Lisa Micele shares tips for applying to college — especially for students who have been deferred under early decision.

December 18 15 Comments

America’s Political Dynasties

Americans under 38 have only experienced one presidential election that did not involve a Bush or a Clinton.

December 17 2 Comments

Atticus Lish’s ‘Preparation For The Next Life’

The author's debut novel centers on an unlikely romance between an Iraq veteran and a Uyghur from China.

December 17 3 Comments

Diagnosing Ear Infections With Your Smartphone

The CellScope Oto is a clip-on gadget that turns a smartphone into an otoscope — the tool doctors use to check out a patient's eardrum.