BOYCOTT LEAVES SOME STRONG EMOTIONS SOME 20 YEARS LATER
By Al Mattei
The United States of America takes the 1980 Olympic hockey gold medal right from under Moscow's nose. As the clock hits zero, team members get together in a red, white, and blue group hug in sheer delirium.
The television announcers utter phrases which become etched in national memory. The players are destined to become household names.
Then, the members of the U.S. women's field hockey team pick themselves off the AstroTurf and jog off the field....
If things had been a little different, the words "1980" and "hockey" might have conjured up star-spangled visions of Beth Anders, Beth Beglin, Char Morett and Karen Shelton -- not Neal Broten, Mike Eruzione, Jim Craig, and Mike Ramsay.
You see, going into 1980, the U.S. women's field hockey team was the team expected to win a medal -- possibly gold. The men's ice hockey team, on the other hand, was not.
A group of athletic, dedicated American women had been building towards the inaugural Olympic field hockey tournament for women in 1980. Men's field hockey had been in the Olympic program for years; the Americans finished third in Los Angeles at the 1932 Olympics, despite being walloped by India 23-1 in the preliminaries.
But the women were expected to exceed that performance; the United States had done extremely well in international competition in the mid-70s.
"The 1975 World Cup was the first time we had been in anything that intense, and it was a great learning experience," says Linda Kriezer, the former Team USA member who was one of the last players cut for the 1980 team. "We made a vow that we would improve, so the next four years, we were on a mission."
After placing 10th in the 1975 World Cup, there was a bronze medal for Team USA in 1979.
"We had high hopes going into the '80 Olympics," Kriezer said. "A third place, of course, would be medal territory."
However, in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. One of the responses that a number of Western countries made -- including the United States -- was to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
"There was a rumor in December that (the boycott) had happened, so I called Vonnie (Gros, the national-team coach), and she said that she had heard about it and that it was possible," says Anders, now head coach at Old Dominion. "Then, they brought the captains in, so Vonnie, Julie Staver and I went down to Washington as Carter addressed the athletes. We thought we were going to talk about it, but he came out with (national security advisor Zbigniew) Brzyznski and told us that we were going to boycott. It was quite a blow."
"We were at a tournament when the word come down," Kreiser says. "I can remember the faces of the kids at the tournament, and they had this look of disbelief. You just felt so bad for them, because you wanted them to have the ability to show how well they could play with all of the practices."
"I was a little unique in my position, coming from a military family," says former team member Karen Shelton, now the head coach at the University of North Carolina. "Growing up, you have a belief in our country, our government, and our president's decisions. I was hoping that it was a threat, just to push the Russian invasion out of Afghanistan."
The decision kept the U.S. team members -- all of whom had been training for years just for the debut of women's Olympic field hockey -- out of the Games.
"The team was focused and well-trained and ready," said Anders, who was a sweeper and corner striker for Team USA in that era. "We did everything we had to do; we had never been in that position in the world. I think we were pretty confident that we could have finished in the top three."
"I didn't have this bitter reaction to it, part of me thought I could serve my country, in a way," Shelton says. "I know that sounds corny and different, but that's the way I felt."
The closest any of the Olympians got to greatness was a White House ceremony during which President Carter presented special medals to the entire 1980 Summer Olympic delegation.
"I was one of the few to shake President Carter's hand," Shelton says. "He is our commander-in-chief, and I have that kind of respect for our government and our system, and I didn't feel as though I needed to make a bold statement because I was mad that I didn't get to go to the Olympics. And, I still have all my stuff from back then."
"We went as a team," Anders said. "I have no idea what I did with that medal."
The action was one which was devastating to the tournament pool. Several nations who were contenders for the gold -- the U.S., West Germany, the Netherlands -- did not show for the Games. Replacements were found for the boycotting teams. One of them -- Zimbabwe -- won the gold medal.
The 1980 boycott meant the end of golden dreams for a number of the players on that roster. However, given the fact that the 1984 Games were awarded to Los Angeles, the Americans would get an automatic bid.
Some of the members of the 1980 Olympic Team kept together, kept their skills at a high level for four solid years until the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. The team set up in a residency camp at Temple University in Philadelphia
"The average age of our team was older, because just about everybody stayed," says Sheryl Johnson, now the head coach at Stanford University. "It was tough: we had no funding and we had to live there on our own."
"For the most part, we rededicated ourselves as a group and were determined to make it happen, because we put so much into it," Anders says.
"I was young when the boycott happened, so I knew that this Olympics wouldn't be the end-all, be-all," Shelton says. "I wasn't playing field hockey simply to go to the Olympics: I was playing because I loved it, I was good at it, and I was representing my country."
While the U.S. women managed to take the bronze medal in 1984 -- paralleling the men's effort in 1932 -- there was a hollow feeling amongst some of the U.S. delegation. The Soviet Union and many countries in the Eastern bloc boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics. But the women's field hockey tournament was still strong; the nations that did boycott were not medal contenders.
"It was nice they stayed together," says Kreiser, now head coach at Hummelstown Lower Dauphin (Pa.). "And it was really rewarding for them that they won the bronze."
"When you're talking about the boycott, you're talking about a missed opportunity," Anders says. "The thing is, we're Americans, and we want to support America, and we didn't understand why we had to be made an example and used in that fashion in politics. When you play another team, you don't think about the politics, you think about competition. It's a hard spot for an athlete to be in, especially in a country that supports its athletes."