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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.


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

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  • 5thcolumnist

    Although Mr. Virgin can certainly hold on to his long-running, bitter disappointment at losing his one big shot at the 1980 Olympics due to the U.S. boycott (which, admittedly, did nothing to punish the USSR for invading Afghanistan), his claim of athletes suffering deep depression and more from the decision is absurd, over-inflated hyperbole. A hard look at what the Olympics have become – corrupted by monstrous amounts of money accompanied by corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, and turned into highly politicized showboats for equally corrupt governments – should force everyone to reevaluate the true value of what has become a gross expenditure of precious capital at the expense of the real needs of a nation’s populace and infrastructure. The Olympics are no longer about individual and team athleticism, but a distorted, bloated display for the corrupt and powerful in the face of increasingly inequitable societal structures. I say dismantle the Olympics, and have athletes compete in regional and transnational meets – without all the pomp and graft.

  • Gene Pozniak

    I am deeply disappointed that Here and Now provided no alternate view of the morality and practicality of the 1980 Olympic boycott. But since I have an MA and PhD in Foriegn affairs, I’m happy to provide one. Mr. Virgin sounds like the perfect product of the “Me Generation.” MY sports *hobby*, MY money. He wanted the boycott to work IMMEDIATELY or he didn’t believe it worked. So the Soviets invaded some country he never heard of and destroyed the lives of people he didn’t know. It wasn’t like they invaded Poland, right? Or would Mr. Virgin have insisted on going ahead with the 1939 Olympics if that had happened? The Soviet invasion crossed so many lines of international law and morality that for President Carter to do nothing would have made a mockery of both concepts. And from a long-term perspective, there is evidence that the boycott was one more nail in the coffin of the Soviet Empire, the US having shown other countries that it was willing to make some sacrifices even at the risk of domestic political backlash. Jimmy Carter may not have been the best President overall, but his policies on human rights restored America’s standing in the world.

    • it_disqus

      Your take on the history is not correct. Mr. Virgin’s is far more accurate.

      • OriginalAustin

        I imagine that Carter did what he thought was the best decision at the time. Hindsight makes everyone a genius.

        • it_disqus

          I agree. Carter made a lot of decisions on what he thought was best. Most of them in hindsight have shown he was nowhere close to a genius.

      • Gene Pozniak

        Oh my! Your reasoning is SO profound. I guess I MUST be wrong. :-/

        • it_disqus

          What reasoning are you looking for? I agree with the guest and I think you are more emotionally involved and thus more blinded to reality in your response than the man who lost his chance to compete in the Olympics.

          • Gene Pozniak

            I think you need to look up “reasoning” in the dictionary. It’s clear that you don’t know what it means.

  • fx1234567890

    You gave a forum to a crybaby. It’s been over 30 years. He needs to get over himself and get a life. The Olympics are a monumental hypocrisy and the IOC is morally bankrupt.

    If it was truly about certain higher ideals then 70% of the world would be unacceptable as a venue to hold the Olympics. But that would make the Olympics a pretty exclusively small club. So the IOC being realistic, hypocritical and morally bankrupt, but realistic, holds them in places like Russia and China.

    No thanks. I choose not to be a consumer or a target demographic.

    • Karen LaPorte Fox

      I think you’re a cry baby! Go put your negative comments somewhere else. It was an interview and if you knew anything about training and giving your life up for a sport, you would be singing another song. Next…

      • fx1234567890

        When we stop holding them in countries run by corrupt criminals and murdering dictators and don’t use them to sell trillions of dollars of advertising anymore, I might care.

        • Karen LaPorte Fox

          Your own country is run by dictators and criminals. Just look around you. Maybe the Olympics are the one event that can bring joy and good to all the nations.

  • Andy Knudsen

    As an athlete, I can say that many comments here are probably from people who are not athletes. The sacrifice that is made to get to top form, when you have a very narrow window of opportunity physically, is huge. It is a single overarching goal that many of these runners have starting in high school if not junior high. It takes a huge commitment. Back then, especially, it was impossible to have a “regular” job and take on the kind of training that is required. It is not wonder that Olympic athletes are disgusted by the political games that are played around something like the Olympics. The event should be a time when differences are put aside, a political time-out if you will, so these athletes and their families can realize the dreams they have held on to for years if not decades.

    • Blake Mitchell

      That’s right. And don’t forget that athlete’s of Virgin’s era were technically “amateurs” and were highly restricted in terms of what they could and could not to to supplement their income.

    • Karen LaPorte Fox


    • Jim Dittemore

      Andy, Were you a cyclist in the 70′s? I think we raced one another back in the day.

  • http://www.securecottage.com/cgi-bin/reference.cgi Paul Cheffers

    Don’t forget about the generation of African athletes, both black and white, who were wasted due to the anti-apartheid boycotts. While the anti-apartheid movement was on the right side regarding majority rule in South African and Simbabwe, in general, the political players of that movement ruthlessly used the African athletes as pawns in this struggle. I agree with Craig Virgin, that seeing Jessie Owens compete in the 36 Olympics was worth competing in the same stadium Adolf Hitler was in. Oscar Ameringer once said: “A politican is someone who will spend your life to help their country”. Too many African power players spent the athletic lives of their best runners in the 70s and 80s, and it was usually done so dictatorships could be established, dictatorships that the political players would benefit vastly from.

  • Karen LaPorte Fox
  • Karen LaPorte Fox

    More great interviews on NBC News on the effects of the ’80 Olympic Boycott.


  • Carmen Falco

    Lesson the Russians learned from the 1980 Olympic boycott: Invade your neighbors AFTER you host the Olympics!

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