Joe Sargent

The Torino Olympics started Friday with a favored American team
leading the way. Four years of hard work culminate into 16 days of
intense rivalry as athletes from around the globe convene on the
greatest of stages for athletic competition.

It is the moment many have dreamed of, and the greatest achievement a
competitor can strive for: an appearance at the Olympic games.
In 1980, however, politics became a barrier between the aspirations of
American athletes and a chance to win that coveted Olympic medal.
Twenty-six years ago a Cal Poly coach got caught between that barrier
when the United States boycotted the Moscow games.

John Azevedo, Cal Poly’s head wrestling coach, made the United States
Olympic team that was headed for the Moscow games, but on March 21,
1980 Jimmy Carter announced to the world that because of the communist
invasion of Afghanistan, the United States. was boycotting the games.
“Being an Olympic champion is the ultimate goal,” Azevedo said. And
being unable to accomplish that goal due to powers beyond your control
is a nightmarish experience.

Azevedo began wrestling in the sixth grade after his two older
brothers started wrestling in high school.

“They started coming home and showing me the moves, beating me up,”
Azevedo said. “I got tough, they made me tough.”

After playing through high school, Azevedo received a scholarship to
wrestle at Oklahoma University, where his freshman year record was
13-3. The next year Azevedo redshirted and then transferred to CSU
Bakersfield, where over the next three years Azevedo’s combined record
was 122-2.
In 1980, Azevedo went to the national freestyle tournament and from
there went with the top six wrestlers to the Olympic trials. He won
the event and made the United States Olympic team. His hometown of
Patterson congratulated Azevedo by giving him the key to the city.
Azevedo then joined the rest of the Olympic team to begin training for
the games. That was in February, by March the boycott was on.
“We had heard rumbling that we may not be going, that there may be a
boycott. I just figured no way they would do that to us,” Azevedo
said.

The team kept training until Azevedo’s coach Dan Gable told them that
they were officially not going.

“The whole thing just left a bad taste all the way around, the
athletes, the American public, the Soviet Union, our allies and just
world opinion. It just looks like ‘what spoiled brats,'” Cal Poly
history professor John Snetsinger said.

The official reason Carter boycotted the games was because the Soviet
Union had invaded Afghanistan and he didn’t agree with the invasion.
Moscow had geared up for the games and was hoping to do away with the
world image of being a backwards nation, Snetsinger said.

But the foreign policy didn’t really accomplish anything, and it
didn’t make much sense. It was like punishing our wrestling team at
home because the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, Snetsinger said.
“You think ‘What’s the positive result of this policy?’ It didn’t make
the Soviet Union get out of Afghanistan, and you wrecked those
athletes’ lives,” Snetsinger said.

Carter was so adamant about no U.S. athletes participating that he
said that any athletes that went would have their passports revoked.
“Your goal is to go and wrestle in the Olympics and win it, not make
the team. That’s just part of the process,” Azevedo said.

Azevedo assumed that he would make it onto the ’84 team; he had taken
fourth at the world wrestling championship in ’82, but before he could
make the team he was hurt and retired from wrestling. He was ranked
No. 2 in the country at that point.

“There is no professional wrestling – the ultimate goal in our sport
is to be an Olympic champion.”

After the news of the boycott, the Olympic team was invited to
Washington D.C. where it received honorary medals from congress, had
dinner at the White House, and Azevedo even got to shake President
Carter’s hand, but that didn’t stop many athletes from protesting the
decision.

“It doesn’t seem like a good move to use athletes as political pawns,”
Azevedo said. “We’ve spent our lives trying to (compete at the
Olympics), it was our goal … and the president treated it like (no
big deal).”

Both athletes and citizens protested the decision, but nothing
changed. None of the athletes were for the decision, some protested,
and some even filed lawsuits, Azevedo said.

Azevedo said that because of his age he was not bitter or angry at the
time, but that some of the older athletes were hit very hard by the
decision.

“For some people it was their last chance,” he said.

In the end, the Soviet team won 80 gold medals, 195 medals total and
didn’t leave Afghanistan until years later.

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