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More than anybody else, members of Canada’s 1980s Olympic team can relate to today’s team. The 2020 team just watched their Olympic Games at least temporarily taken away from them.
But it doesn’t work both ways.
Today’s Olympians will never be able to relate to the Moscow 1980s group.
Now grey haired seniors in their 60s and early 70s, many of them competed in the Montreal 1976 Olympics and/or the Edmonton 1978 Commonwealth Games. They didn’t get their games postponed. They got them totally taken away by Justin Trudeau’s dad and the politicians of the day.
If they were in both Montreal 1976 and Edmonton 1978, they visited all ends of the spectrum of emotions.
In Montreal 1976 our nation became the only summer Olympics host nation to fail to win a gold medal.
But 1980 in the Soviet Union our country was going to make up for it.
Our athletes telegraphed it in Edmonton in 1978 where Canada won 45 gold medals and 109 medals overall, a haul our athletes never equaled again.
Canada was going to go to Moscow projecting the most Olympic medals in our history led by the top two stars of the Commonwealth Games — Graham Smith and Diane Jones-Konihowsi.
Smith won six golds in swimming in 1978 in Edmonton and Jones-Konihowski won the pentathlon in track.
And then 40 years ago, almost to this day day, they had their Olympic Games taken away.
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who two years earlier Jones-Konihowski had created a sensation by dancing a significant part of the night away with at the athletes village, announced Canada was boycotting the Olympics and would not be not sending a team because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Some of Canada’s Olympians who were supposed to march in the opening ceremonies behind flag bearer Sue Holloway included Debbie Brill, Charmaine Crooks, Jay Triano, Gordon Singleton, James Elder, Tricia Smith, John Primrose, Cheryl Gibson, Alex Baumann and Nancy Garapick.
Some, like trap shooter John Primrose (Mexico City 1968, Munich 1972, Montreal 1976, Los Angeles 1984, Seoul 1988 and Barcelona 1992), made it to others. Others would never have an Olympic experience.
But it was Smith and Jones-Konihowski who were the athletes who Canadians had the greatest expectations for and whom they had reserved the highest pedestals for upon their return.
When I talked to Smith about Friday as he self-isolated in his home in Vancouver, he said it didn’t just take a 16-day event from him, it damn near destroyed most of a decade of his life.
“It still is a wound that I carry,” he said. “It still hurts. The hurt never went away.
“I sacrificed a lot. I took a year off university at Cal Berkley to go train in Nashville under Don Talbot.
“I remember when Trudeau got re-elected. I was really hopeful when he said he wasn’t going to necessarily follow the American boycott but quote-unquote ‘pull it off the table and think about it for a while.’
“I’d been training my heart out in Nashville. Bill Sawchuk took time away from the U of Florida to do the same. I vividly remember the two of us were playing catch in the backyard of the people I was staying with. The phone started ringing. Finally, when it kept ringing, I went in and picked it up. It was a reporter. He said ‘Hey, Graham, they just announced in the House of Commons that we’re not going to the Moscow Olympics. Can I get a comment from you?’
“Quite politely said ‘Just a moment, please.’
“Then I put my hand over the mouthpiece and I swore at the top of my lungs.
“Then I got back on the line and as calmly as I could manage said ‘No comment at this time.’
“The next couple days were surreal. I went to practice and Talbot almost had to throw me in the water. Sawchuk got in and tore up the water. I was the exact opposite. I had 12-year-old girls kicking my butt in the pool.
“I was just in shock, really. I was devastated.
“My buddy Chris Erickson, who was there taking time away from the U of Hawaii, pulled up stakes and never returned to the pool. He never made it to an Olympics.
“My expectations were pretty high. Remember the fellow I battled with in the breaststroke, Duncan Goodhew from Great Britain? He won the gold in the 100-metre breaststroke in Moscow. He’d never beaten me when the chips were down, when we were shaved and tapered. Never. The 400-metre medley relay was won by the Australians. We beat them two years earlier in Edmonton. Three of the guys I was training with in Nashville from different countries all won medals at the Olympics. When I saw those results, I knew that, yeah, I would have brought home Olympic medals.
“Going back to continue my swim career I was very listless. I finally called it quits in the spring of 1992 without going to defend my Commonwealth Games titles.
“In life throughout the ‘80s I was listless. I had failed relationships and some failed jobs.
“It really took its toll. I remember where I was when we rang in the New Year in 1990 toasting the Olympic year and I remember were I was in 2000 hoping my life was going to change — and it did. The ‘80s, for me really sucked.”
Smith thinks about today’s team and has no lack of empathy.
“I don’t think they can relate to us because it’s a postponement. But I can’t help but think of Canadian athletes training. Most of the places where they train have been shutdown. Athletes in other countries may have exemptions. If they stay, they’re going to have to readjust their training, their mindset, their timetable, their finances … almost everything.
“Some may just decide to pack it in. I think you’re going to hear a lot of heartbreak of athletes who say ‘I just can’t do it anymore.’
“That said I’m very happy that the Canadian Olympic Committee was the first out of the gate and Australia quick to follow in saying ‘You know what, if it’s this year, we’re not sending a team because of the safety of our athletes.”
Smith has don’t-do-as-I-did, do-as-I say advice to today’s Olympians.
“Adapt. Re-adjust. Get motivated.
“They’ve come so far. Keep it going.”
Earlier in the week I interviewed Jones-Konihowski in Calgary about the IOC’s move to delay a decision to postpone the Olympics another four weeks. She totally sounded off on the IOC decision. Toward the end of the interview we talked about Moscow 1980.
“In 1980 I had moved away to New Zealand to spend our winter down there,” Jones she remembered.
“I wanted to get away from the Canadian media because I was a favourite to get on the podium in Moscow.
“I didn’t want a repeat of what happened to me with Montreal 1976 where I gave myself a lot. I promoted the Games. I was the Olympic coin poster girl. It seemed I was flying back to Canada every second week from where I was training in Santa Barbara to promote something. I decided that, because this would likely be the last Olympics where I would be a medal contender, to avoid most of that
“I remember being there in New Zealand watching in horror where I saw so many U.S. athletes on television at the White House where they were trying to get Jimmy Carter to reverse his decision to boycott.
“I believe it was April 23 or 24 when I got a phone call from a member of the media in Canada asking me what I thought about the decision.
“I spoke negatively against it. There was quite the reaction back home against me. The Edmonton Eskimos switchboard lit up asking what they were doing hiring the husband of a communist,” she said of receiver John Konihowski. I was invited to the Olympics by the Moscow organizing committee but I don’t think I’d have got out of the country if I’d said yes to it. In hindsight I wish I’d gone and competed as I could have without a flag and without a country.”
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