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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.
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.
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