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Friday, September 22
Campbell, others nearly defied boycott

When Tonie Campbell first heard of a potential Olympic boycott in 1980, he stood behind his country, supporting the idea. But after shocking even himself and qualifying for the Moscow Games, everything changed. A few months later, at just 19 years old, Campbell found himself the youngest member of an underground movement determined to make it to Moscow.

The Athletes of the Boycott's Wayne Drehs caught up with five 1980 Olympians to reflect on the boycott 20 years later. Their stories:

  • Boycott still lingers
  • Swimming's Jill Sterkel
  • Track's Bruce Kennedy
  • Basketball's Bill Hanzlik
  • Track's Tonie Campbell
  • Swimming's Cynthia Woodhead
  • Campbell, a USC sophomore at the time, wasn't even supposed to make the U.S. team. But at the U.S. Track and Field trials, a surprising third-place finish in the 110-meter hurdles assured his spot. Suddenly, the boycott he so heavily supported was keeping him from Olympic glory.

    "Initially, I made a statement that the boycott was necessary if it will save just one person's life," Campbell said. "But unfortunately, you cross that finish line in third place and you're now the person effected by this. It hits home real quickly that you're getting screwed.

    "We were on a selected team, they gave us a uniform -- it was like we were all dressed up with nowhere to go."

    Campbell and the rest of the U.S. track team headed to Europe to compete in various championship meets when talk of undermining the boycott began. Veteran members of the squad contacted the International Olympic Committee (IOC), asking if it was possible for athletes who didn't support the boycott to compete under the IOC flag. Their goal was to make the statement that politics and sports don't mix. The IOC response was favorable, saying there was a strong chance the Americans would be allowed to compete. However, getting to Moscow and the Olympic Village was entirely the athletes' responsibility.

    "They wanted no part of being responsible for defying a country's decision to boycott," Campbell said.

    So, the small group of athletes interested looked at their upcoming schedule and targeted a meet in Budapest, Hungary as the ideal place to begin the trek to Moscow. The leaders did some research and plotted a path where a series of busses and trains would lead them from Budapest into the heart of the Soviet Union.

    Tonie Campbell
    Campbell went on to win a bronze in the 1988 Seoul Olympics.

    "There were large risks involved, it was to be a highly covert operation," Campbell said. "You have to remember, this was one of the first times that American athletes were going behind the Iron Curtain."

    At the group's next meeting, where the final decisions were to be made, a telegram was read. It came from a high-ranking U.S. official and explained that any attempt to enter Russia and compete under the IOC flag would result in a revoking of the athletes' passport and visa. The individual would then become an expatriate, essentially homeless in a foreign country.

    Though the threat cooled the underground ambitions of many, a small group of athletes remained unfazed, refusing to let go of their Olympic dream.

    "There were a lot of tears and anger in that room," Campbell said. "And defiance -- some still wanted to take the chance. I had just taken some politics classes at school, and I knew what they were involving themselves in. They were willing to risk their family, their friends, their country, whatever it took to make the Olympics. A lot of these guys were at the end of their career and they were desperate. This was the last hope they had. All their dreams and hopes had been plugged into this one Olympics.

    "Luckily, the cooler heads prevailed and we all decided it wasn't worth the risk, especially since we weren't 100-percent sure the IOC was going to let us compete anyway."

    Had the group decided otherwise, Campbell said he would have gone along. Twenty years later, he still believes that would have been the right decision.

    "For my age and who I was at the time, that would have been the right thing for me to do," Campbell said. "In the event that we were banned from coming back to the U.S., I think I would have survived. I've been around the world enough to see some incredibly wonderful places where I could have been very comfortable."

    Campbell went on to qualify for the 1984 and '88 Games, winning a bronze in Seoul in '88. But it was his first Olympic experience, as a young, naive teenager, that soured him on the nation's political process. A few years ago he bumped in to one of President Jimmy Carter's cabinet members who enlightened Campbell on the behind-the-scenes workings of the boycott. Campbell said he was told the boycott was discussed as early as 1978 and was a pretty much a done deal well before 1980.

    "That made me feel insignificant as a citizen and an athlete, knowing that individuals, for whatever reason, be it testosterone, ego, whatever, were molding and dictating my Olympic career for their selfish needs. It makes you bitter. There was a long time where I couldn't stand the establishment. I didn't vote for several years, I just bailed out on the whole thing. But then I reminded myself that I was one of the fortunate ones. I still made two more teams. There were some who never competed again."

    Campbell, now 40, lives in Imperial Beach, Calif., where he works in marketing for a movie company. Next January he plans on opening his own public relations firm specializing in the promotion of Olympic athletes.

    "I think there's a lot of potential to improve the way things are marketed," Campbell said. "I want to help the average mom and pop grocery story support a local athletes' Olympic dreams. I've learned how quickly those dreams can be taken away. And they don't come true every year."

    Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for


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