The Olympics games have gone so well lately it's startling to remember when politics collided with the hopes of Olympic athletes in 1980 and 1984. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter called a US boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, and more than 60 countries followed our lead. Four years later, the Soviets boycotted the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and took 14 countries with them. What did the boycotting countries do instead? They created their own Olympics.
In July of 1980, athletes from 29 nations descended upon Philadelphia for the Liberty Bell Classic. Competitors from Canada, Egypt, West Germany, even China participated. It wasn't as big as your typical Olympic event: most of the competitions were limited to track and field. No gymnastics or swimming. In July, 1984, the USSR hosted the Friendship Games. It wasn't until 1988--in Seoul, South Korea--that the entire world would again compete in the Summer Olympics.
Jeanette Bolden, head women's track and field coach at UCLA, ran in the Liberty Bell Classic in 1980, and she vividly recalls the experience.
Bolden grew up in Compton and told me that she started running in the 8th grade because she was born with, and still suffers from, asthma. "Running track was a way for me to be normal." She won the high school state meet at UCLA in 1977, ran track at UCLA, and qualified for the Olympics in 1980.
So, was she devastated by the boycott? She admits only to being disappointed. "For me, I was just starting out in my career. There were some athletes toward the end of their career and this was the epitome of what they'd been training for and sacrificing for. So it was really really hard for some of the older athletes." But she knew she had the possibility of the 1984 Olympics ahead.
The feeling at the Liberty Bell Classic? First of all, Bolden had never been to Philadelphia, so that was exciting. And then to run on the same track as the famous Penn Relays! She remembers the "USA" chants and the waving US flags. But she admits the level of competition was less; she ran a time in the 100m that won her a silver, but that wouldn't have medaled in Moscow.
Four years later, with the Olympics in her home town, it seems like any residual disappointment melted away in a hurry. "I can't even put it into words," Bolden says. "I'm from Compton, California. I'm right here local. I grew up right down the street from the Coliseum. Just having the Olympic trials here was important, and then to turn around and have the games .. have my family and friends" there.
Bolden won a gold medal in the 4x100 relay and took it home with her that day. Friends were stopping by all evening to see her and it. And how could they miss it? Her mom, Bolden says, had put a big sign on the house telling the world about her daughter.