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Rowing History
The 1980 Olympic Boycott: Rowers on Missing the Games - Part 2
August 5, 2020
Oli Rosenbladt, row2k

The 1980 USA W8+ of McCarthy, Brown, Bower, Spratlen, Harville, Graves, Storrs, Drewsen, Hatton defeats East Germany at Lucerne

By early April 1980, with the boycott of the Moscow Olympics apparently a fait accompli, a mix of resignation, sadness, anger and defiance spread through the US rowers and Olympic hopefuls training in various locations. Some, galvanized into action by the thought of their Olympic dreams, began to fight back.

"We were all quite angry," remembers '80 women's eight coxswain Holly Hatton. "We were ready to talk to anybody, anytime. We went on talk shows. We did whatever we could do to try to get the course of this decision changed."

The "Cliff's Notes" version of the '80 boycott, as published on the US Department of State website, notes the following: "While some nations chose to express their displeasure with Soviet military actions by not sending formal teams to compete, but also not preventing individual athletes from attending and competing under the Olympic flag, athletes in the United States were warned that travel to Moscow for the Games would result in them being stripped of their passports. In protest, a group of 25 American athletes sued the U.S. Government over the boycott seeking permission to compete, but they lost their case."

One of the central figures of this lawsuit was US rower and '76 Olympic bronze medalist Anita DeFrantz.

The Trials of Anita DeFrantz

"Anita DeFranz is one of the few heroes to emerge from all this mess," says Brad Lewis today. "She rose to the challenge, battling for our right to compete in Moscow."

Pivotal to the lawsuit that DeFrantz and the other athletes brought was their interpretation of the Amateur Sports Act of 1978. One of the stated goals of the ASA of 1978 was to "protect the opportunity of any amateur athlete, coach, trainer, manager, administrator, or official to participate in amateur competition." This notion was central to the efforts of the rowers to save their shot at participating in the Games.

Holly Hatton was also a party to the lawsuit. "I really believe that it was a situation where the President took on the weakest group of people he could use. We had no lobby, no nothing, and the President tried to turn that into a show of strength on the international front and, obviously, nothing changed. Ultimately, our lawsuit failed, but Anita really led us through significant part of this. She has my undying admiration for all that she did, all the words she put out there, how she supported all the athletes in trying to convince the folks at the top that this was an inappropriate abuse of power, and abusing athletes who trained and paid for their own way."

Anita DeFrantz profile in the NY Times, early 1980
Anita DeFrantz profile in the NY Times, early 1980

DeFrantz, who had put her existing law career on hold for a shot at an Olympic gold medal, used her legal background to marshal the athletes' public legal opposition to the boycott. She presented her reasoning to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, among others, as former USOC president William E. Simon recounts in his book "A Time for Reflection."

"No one other than my rowing partner was particularly interested in how I utilized my spare time," DeFrantz testified. "Suddenly, my desire to compete in the Olympic Games, which is unquestionably the primary motivation to train, became an unpatriotic act. I was stunned, shocked, and, quite frankly, I felt betrayed.

"My experience as a Black woman in this country has taught me that there are many things that defy rational explanation. These last few days I have tried to understand why it is that the Olympic Games should be used to punish Russia. If the President, the House, and, I submit, this committee, and the American people, truly believe that the Games are so important to the Russians that the United States should effectuate a withdrawal of Russian troops from Afghanistan by refusing to participate in those Games, then why weren't the Games used to prevent the invasion of that country and prevent the subjugation of that people?

"I don't understand why the Games, if they had to be used, could not have been used to prevent bloodshed, instead of trying to punish those who have participated in bloodshed."

In early May 1980, DeFrantz and her teammates formally filed the lawsuit (which entered the legal annals as "DeFrantz et, al,. v. United States Olympic Committee") in a desperate attempt to force their participation in the Olympics. However, just over three weeks after the case was filed, U.S. District Judge John H. Pratt dismissed the case. As Emerson Solms, a Princeton undergraduate who included a detailed history of the case in a larger work on the trajectory of American women's rowing, explains, "[Judge Pratt argued] that the Amateur Sports Act, while it did protect the athlete's right to compete from the interference of political pressures, the political pressures that it protected them from only extended as far as arguments between competing athletic organizations, not arguments between the President of the United States and the USOC."

With the suit dismissed, any Moscow participation by US athletes would require nothing short of a miracle.

Olympic Trials & the USRowing European Tour

Despite the boycott, the USOC determined in the spring of 1980 that they would direct their NGBs to continue their Olympic trials and selection procedures, and that they would name a "1980 US Olympic Team," in order to recognize the efforts of the athletes-an awfully thin silver lining.

USRowing followed suit, and finalized the 1980 US Rowing National Team through Olympic trials and camps. Of course, following the announcement of the boycott and DeFrantz' lawsuit, the situation was anything but normal.

"The selection process had happened in Princeton and we continued to believe that, somehow, some way, we would end up going to the Olympics," remembers Hatton. "This is how we were operating. We were just trying to get as fast as we could get and be ready to race on a moment's notice if things were reversed."

"Our coaches brought us together before workout one day, and told us that [the boycott] was on, but efforts were being made to work out a compromise," said Paul Prioleau, who was at the men's sweep camp. "Everyone was pretty disappointed, but I think there was some hope that the decision would be eventually reversed. Some of the athletes decided to end their training, but for me, I figured that I had worked so hard to get to where I was, I might as well continue."

The Olympic small boats and quads were determined by trials racing, even with the long shadow of the boycott looming over them.

"The trials for all the men's sculling boats were on the same day, rapid fire, one after the other," recalled Brad Lewis. "We had some decent scullers back then: Tiff Wood, Chris Allsopp, Jim Dietz, John Van Blom, a few more. We realized that if we all went for the single scull, only one of us would make the Olympic team. So four of us teamed up for the quad. Allsop stroke, Tiff at three, me at two, Tom Howes in the bow.

"The trials were final-only. Did we have any miles under our belts before the trials? Based on the location of the dock at the trials in Camden relative to the starting line, at least one mile. We won by 40 seconds. Van Blom and Jim Dietz won the double trials. Tom Hazeltine won the single."

With the athletes smarting from the boycott, US Rowing stepped in to offer a consolation of sorts; a fully-funded tour of Europe to participate in three Olympic tune-up regattas at Lucerne, Amsterdam and the Henley Royal Regatta, for a chance to taste racing at the highest level.

1980 USA Women's team at Lucerne
1980 USA Women's team at Lucerne

"Racing in Europe in lieu of the Games was excellent," remembers Lewis. "Kudos to the US Rowing staff. Top notch. They had all the accommodations, travel and dining dialed in."

Part of that dialed-in travel was the group of coaches who drove the shells around throughout the tour. Dubbed the "Boat People" by the team, Fin Meislahn, Dick Dreissigacker, and Vinny Ventura spent the summer towing the US shells around Europe with a Jeep Wagoneer, which made things interesting once they got off the ferry to Dover and had to start driving on the British side of the road. All Ventura can recall from that part of the trip is Meislahn constantly yelling "Keep Left!"

"One of the upsides [of the boycott], if you can call it that, was that we were able to train and race in Europe for about 6 weeks," said Fred Borchelt, who had won trials in the 2+ with his brother Mark. "Back then we did very little racing on the European circuit. Often times in a summer we had maybe one domestic race, the 4th of July regatta in Philly or the Senior Nationals, then the trials and then the World Championships or Olympics.

"The significant thing about this trip for me was that we raced against some of the Eastern Bloc countries that raced in Moscow."

The 1980 European tour started in Lucerne, and, for the US Women, the racing produced one truly indelible memory of that summer.

"When we got our boat together for the first time, the first time we put it in the water in Lucerne, it just flew," recalled Hatton. "You could sense there was magic there."

1980 USA W8+ at Lucerne
1980 USA W8+ at Lucerne

"Lucerne back then was a two-day regatta, and on the first day we actually won. We beat the East Germans by something like three or four tenths of a second. That was the first time a Western crew had beaten the East Germans."

"We knew when we raced at Lucerne that that was our only chance to race the East Germans," added Carol Brown. "We had the satisfaction of showing them we were ready to have raced them for Olympic gold in Moscow. It was a very emotional and hollow victory but we had done what we had set out to do. It was the ONLY time the East German women's eight ever lost a race!"

The team moved on to Bruges, Belgium, to train and race at Amsterdam. "For a while we trained-and stayed--at the Bruges Row Trim Club," recalled Lewis. "The wind blew off the North Sea morning, noon, and night. It was a place far better suited for trim than rowing. You'd carry your boat out of the boat bay in the morning and the wind would push against the bow like a pissed off invisible man. We trained on a narrow canal, getting tangled in fishing lines as we zipped past old men fishing for eels. Well, we all survived."

1980 USA Men's team at Bruges, Belgium
1980 USA Men's team at Bruges, Belgium

Sculler Tiff Wood concurred. "I can't believe we found a day when it wasn't raining," he recalled. For Jim Dietz meanwhile, the memories weren't of rowing at all. "What I remember the most was President Carter wanting to take our passports because we were out of the country in Belgium."

Before the team left Bruges, the men held an intrasquad scrimmage, mostly for the entertainment of the boathouse families and the locals of the town, throwing the smaller boats into three eights and then running two 500 meter pieces against the actual Men's Eight. Even with the spares rowing, the squad was one bowman short of four eights, so Vinny Ventura, the assistant sculling coach to Mike Vespoli, was nominated as "the youngest coach" to fill the spot in what he recalls as the fastest eight he had ever been in--and that was just the crew made up of one of the fours, the pair and the sculling spare.

In Amsterdam, the US crews again performed well, winning multiple events, and with the US Women's eight setting a course record that stood for many years.

Mark & Fred Borchelt with Henley spoils
Mark & Fred Borchelt with Henley spoils

At Henley, the US Men shone brightly, winning all four elite level sweep events - the Grand Challenge Cup for Eights, the Prince Philip Cup for Coxed Fours, the Stewards Cup for Straight Fours, and the Silver Goblets for the Men's Pair.

"The British were none too keen that we were at the HRR that year," recalls Borchelt. "The British team did not boycott the Moscow Olympics so all of their elite crews were elsewhere. I don't know if they actually called us 'pot-hunters' but maybe some understood that we really would have preferred to have been competing in Moscow.

"I believe that almost all of our margins at Henley in the pair that year were 'easily.'"

For the US Men's Eight, their performances were bittersweet, knowing that they would not get a chance to perform on the biggest stage that year. "They probably would have won it," Canadian '80 Olympian Phil Monkton later said about the crew. "They had so much speed that year."

1980 USA M8+ of Colgan, Cashin, Somerville, Altekruse, Woodman, Christensen, Everett, Ibbetson and Chatzky races at Amsterdam
1980 USA M8+ of Colgan, Cashin, Somerville, Altekruse, Woodman, Christensen, Everett, Ibbetson and Chatzky races at Amsterdam

Nevertheless, the team had made the most of their European tour. "We had a lot of success at the European regattas, and the mood was generally that if we couldn't race in the Olympics, we should at least try to beat our competitors where we could race them, showing what the Olympics would be missing," said Prioleau, who stroked one of two USA coxed fours to make the final at Henley.

"One of the silver linings of that tour was that we all really got along well as a team, and developed some lifelong friendships and memorable stories during that time. The night of our final races at Henley, we had a raucous full team dinner at a local restaurant, that ended up with a team jump off the Henley bridge into the Thames. All but three of us managed to escape the police boat."

Even while in Europe, a few of the athletes held on to their slim chances of competing at the Olympics until the very end.

Letter to Holly Hatton from Lord Killanin, President of the IOC
Letter to Holly Hatton from Lord Killanin, President of the IOC

"While we were in Europe training, we tried to take several actions in order to apply for independent country status to compete in Moscow," said Hatton. "We petitioned the IOC. We received a letter from Lord Killanin [President of the IOC in 1980, eds.] that basically said, 'if you are able to get your NGB to sign off on this, we would allow you to come to the Olympics.'

"Anita DeFrantz reached out to the U.S. rowing board of directors, and asked them to support our request. Three hours later, they called her back and said, no, they couldn't support it. Of course, they didn't ask anybody. This is just what they decided.

"But we continued to try to figure out ways to race. We were training in West Germany, very close to the East German border, and we would be out rowing in the eight and someone would say, 'maybe if we just cross over the border, they'll take us in and we'll say, for our punishment, we'll race at the Olympics.' It was just a crazy time, emotionally strung out. I can't tell you how angry we all were."

Carol Brown was more succinct. "The East Germans left Lucerne and went on to win gold in Moscow. We flew home."

Coming up in Part III of the series: The Aftermath: US Olympians visit the White House, and 40 years of Reflections

Photos and scans courtesy of Holly Hatton, Jim Dietz, Brad Lewis, and Fred Borchelt

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