An Olympian with nowhere to go

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A few months later, in early 1980, following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, news began to flow that the United States was considering a boycott of the Moscow Games. With Nehemiah at his best, the news was not good.

“I was in a fog, I mean I couldn’t figure my head out,” he recalls. “I had the impression that the boycott was against a war against the Russians. But the real frustration for me is that President Carter did something that was inconsistent, I felt. It allowed the Winter Olympians to participate (which in that year resulted in the United States’ “Miracle on Ice” victory over the Russians).

“So I was hopeful. I’m like ‘OK, now we’ll show them.’ We just beat them on the ice in their sport. So now we are going to go to the Summer Olympics. But for some reason he just held his stance on the summer games.

“I felt that the Olympic movement at that time in winter-summer (which was held in the same calendar year) was a movement. It’s not like now. I felt it was such an emotional and grave injustice to throw that carrot over there… It was very difficult for me to understand what it was for, because the Russians did not leave Afghanistan and obviously we did not go to war.

The decision became personal for the athletes of the 65 nations who participated in the boycott.

“There were so many athletes who were hurt by this and some whose careers were over,” Nehemiah said. “Maybe it was that one and only or their last Olympics.

“I felt for a lot of people. I knew I was quite young (at 21). I knew physically that I had another opportunity. I am a team player. I knew a lot of my teammates who were older, and it was the end for all …

“I hadn’t even scratched the surface of my career yet. I had just really found my rhythm. It was painful. And I was angry. I mean, I was really angry.

The United States made the decision to go ahead with their own Olympic trials at the end of June 1980. It was still important to select the athletes who would represent the United States team.

Nehemiah comfortably won this race, clocked in 13.26. Dedy Cooper (13.39) and Tonie Campbell (13.44) shared the podium with him.

“Especially for me, every child’s dream is to represent their country,” said Nehemiah. “I couldn’t do it unless I went to the Olympic trials.

“I still had the hope, a glimmer, that there was a chance that President Carter would change his mind in the last hour. If he changes his mind and I’m unprepared or not part of the team, that’s a moot point.

“I didn’t know if there would one day be another Olympic Games for me, because you never know. It was my utopia. It was the most important thing for me, representing my country.

“I was the favorite to win the Olympic trials. It was less important for me because it was to be one of the three on the team just to get to Moscow. It was bittersweet because I ended up winning the Olympic trials with flying colors. So I was a representative and I was now an official Olympian. The bitter part, of course, is that President Carter hasn’t reversed his stance on the boycott.

“And so I was an Olympian with nowhere to go.”


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