By Alec Hurley
On a late July day in 1980, Renaldo Nehemiah, prohibitive favorite and world record holding hurdler, ascended to the top of the podium. His path to dominance in the pre-Olympic years was highlighted by victories at the 1979 International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Cup and Pan-American Games. A junior, collegiate, and now world medalist, the American sprinter exemplified the youth and might of USA athletics in the turbulent 1980s.
However, the podium he summited on that mid-summer’s day was not stamped with the ubiquitous five rings. Rather, it rose from the infield of Franklin Field in Philadelphia. On the other side of the world, over four-thousand miles away, the runner up to Nehemiah at the 1979 World Cup – an East German, by the name of Thomas Munkelt – topped the Olympic podium in Moscow, despite posting a slower time than his American counterpart. A victim of Cold War political tensions, Nehemiah would never live out his Olympic dream.
While the Carter administration pushed for the politicization of sport in an effort to bolster their 1980 re-election campaign, the Athletics Congress furiously worked to generate a viable alternative to the boycotted Moscow Olympiad.[i] Based on significant lobbying by President Carter to host the event at the University of Pennsylvania’s Franklin Field, the meet organizers ultimately decided on the hallowed Philadelphia athletics facility. This was due in part of the failure to secure an international location under the time constraints as well as the readiness of the Philadelphia facility which played host to the legendary Penn Relays track and field invitational in late April.[ii] The Liberty Bell Classic was to host the twenty-six nations and three-hundred athletes that joined the United States in boycotting the Soviet Games. Despite withdrawals, last minute exclusions, and occasional half-hearted performances, Philadelphia rose to the challenge in creating a worthy international experience for the would-be Olympians.
Like the athletes themselves, Philadelphia was an afterthought; a late stand-in following the inability to secure a neutral location in West Africa. The drab conditions inside the venerable, yet aging halls of Franklin Field presented the disillusioned athletes with an uninspiring atmosphere. Brown infield grass, wilting and discolored due to an oppressive late-summer East Coast heat wave, mirrored the scorched seats of the lower bowl.[iii] The unrelenting temperature and rushed preparations dulled initial impressions. In front of a stadium filled at less than one third of maximum capacity, American athletes faced an event well beneath the promise of four-years of ambition and training.[iv] Despite the hasty preparations, Philadelphia provided the athletes what no other city was able: a venue to validate their pre-Olympic sacrifices on a global stage. The legendary allure of Franklin Field, located in the heart of the original American capitol, marked a refuge for the remaining American track stars. Intent on providing the best alternative space available, the birthplace of American freedom bestowed a temporary home to its own alienated athletes; a home where meritocratic achievement would be rewarded, a home where athletes, for two days, outshone the decisions of their own political leaders. Franklin Field provided the final and ultimate stage for most of the top American athletes in 1980. Known and embraced for its perception as an underdog city, Philadelphia was the most appropriate of venues for the cast-aside victims of an emerging political battlefield. It was not the first time the United States had flirted with an Olympic boycott, as it took the convincing of IOC president (and former American Olympic Committee president) Avery Brundage to finalize American participation in the Berlin Olympics of 1936. The Olympic Games had been subject to the political aims of participating nations throughout the twentieth century.[v] However, 1980 would mark the first time American athletes would succumb to geo-political movements beyond their control.
“The crowd is fantastic… they pulled me in” claimed Mary Decker after her dominating win in the women’s 1500 meters.[vi] The most reluctant of the American competitors could hardly contain her gratitude at the opportunity provided by the Athletics Congress and the city of Philadelphia. The Liberty Bell Classic represented the only international track meet on U.S. soil for American athletes in the summer of 1980. Sandwiched between four other international competitions in July and August, the ‘alternative’ meet in Philadelphia would provide the previously-Olympic-bound athletes the closest simulation of Olympic-level competition.[vii] Due to IAAF regulations regarding competitive events surrounding the Olympics, as along with the staging of several other high-profile meets supporters were slow to join Carter’s Games. [viii] Notable entrants secured by the Athletics Congress for the Liberty Classic were the dominant West German team as well as the Canadians. A Chinese delegation also entered in their first international appearance following American trade recognition a year earlier. While out-performed in most events, the team from China earned five wins, and most importantly, served notice of their comeuppance to the Soviet Union, who were already concerned about yielding athletic supremacy to East Germany. Not only were the West German and Canadian teams important from a performance standpoint, their inclusion – along with the Chinese – helped reinforce President Carter’s boycott against the Soviets, bolstering cultural and competitive ties amongst the four nations.[ix] Recognizing the unappetizing reality of the boycott, President Carter used the historic legacy of Franklin Field as the driving attraction to obtain a reasonable alternative to the repressive and antagonist Moscow setting. His gamble was ultimately successful; a forgettable, but successful, substitute. The crowd in Philadelphia turned the hastily assembled alternate games into an enjoyable – if unmemorable – event. Cheering on their fellow nationals with an Olympic caliber fervor, they were rewarded with American victories in eighteen of the twenty-five events.
Although acknowledging home crowd support, several athletes could not contain the disappointment of not being in Moscow. Skepticism was present from the top down as Jimmy Carnes, head of the US Athletic Conference, argued “there’s no alternative… this isn’t even a good international meet.”[x] Several athletes mirrored these thoughts including the seventeen-year-old star of the pentathlon, Marlene Harmon, who immediately turned her attention to the Los Angeles Games, excitedly stating “Oh yeah, I’ll be ready then. It’s going to be a blast.”[xi] The sting of the Moscow boycott hung over the event’s reluctant competitors as the appalling heat did for the rest of those in attendance.
However, most of the American competitors embraced the opportunity provided in Philadelphia. Entering the famed Franklin inner field, American decathlete Bob Coffman boasted of his chances in what was his only opportunity to face the West German favorite, Guido Kratschmer. Welcoming the conditions, Coffman proclaimed that “the German’s haven’t competed much above sixty degrees, so maybe the weather will help.”[xii] With intense weather and a willing crowd, Coffman came out on top. Local collegiate hero Don Paige, of Villanova University was another to embrace the attitude set by team captain Harvey Glance, who said “sitting around won’t accomplish anything, [while not a] substitute for the Olympic Games, this is a great opportunity for the athletes.”[xiii] Running in one of the tightest events of the meet, Paige surged ahead on the back turn to prevail in the half-mile. Having previously attained glory on Franklin Field’s track in college, a breathless Paige remarked he had “never seen a crowd like this [in the United States].” [xiv]
While several star American athletes did not compete – due either to conflicting races, late registration, or emotional fatigue – half of the United States Olympic qualifiers entered the competition on July 16, 1980. [xv] With stars a-plenty among the contingent, the loyal fans were treated to surprisingly elite levels of competition considering the discombobulated nature through which the event was birthed. Several notable athletes who participated would use the event to propel them to further international success. Legendary distance runners Mary Decker and Steve Scott, along with charismatic sprinter Chandra Cheeseborough would all parlay success in Philadelphia to future world titles and international recognition. The boycott served as only a minor inconvenience in their training plans. Delaying rather than sabotaging a life-long ambition.
In his final appearance as a member of the United States national team, heralded sprinter James Walker felt at ease, as the blistering Philadelphia heat provided a receptive hometown environment for the Southern sprinter. One of several golden recruits of the young sprinting class of the late 1970s, Walker had established himself as a collegiate phenomenon. Training as a part of one of the most lethal sprinting quartets ever assembled in collegiate track and field history at Auburn University, Walker contributed to a number of record-breaking races.[xvi] In the years preceding the 1980 Games, Walker translated his collegiate success into national and international accomplishment. [xvii] Gold medal performances at the 1978 USA championships and a first-place finish at the 1979 Pan-American Games marked him as the prohibitive favorite for the Moscow Olympics. Racing under conditions familiar to the native of Alabama, Walker laid down a time which bested that year’s Olympic champion – Volker Beck of East German – by a full tenth of a second. He would never again run for the United States, Walker used his opportunity in Philadelphia to leave no doubt who was the fastest in the world. The Carter administration could take away his Olympics, but not his speed.
The moments made possible in Philadelphia still provided distraught American athletes with the opportunity for international success. The ability to end the competitive season with the chance to write their own stories was an understated consolation. [xviii] Unlike the hollow Congressional Gold Medals awarded to the participants of the games as a guilty apologetic afterthought, the competition in Philadelphia highlighted the resolve of American track and field athletes. In the words of Mary Decker, “This meet didn’t replace the Olympics, but I think it was appropriate. Perhaps we should have one like this in the US every year.”[xix] The event was far from perfect. But in a summer of betrayal, a home was found. As it had over two hundred years earlier, the historic former American capital served as a refuge for a determined group of resistors in the face of repression without representation.
Alec Hurley is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Texas at Austin with a focus on the intersection of sport and empire. In his spare time he doubles as the Head Coach of Men’s Rowing at the university. Alec lived in Philly for five years and holds a deep affinity for the city and its history.
[i] Then the name of the United States Track and Field organization, following a split from the AAU in 1979. The name would formally change in 1992.
[ii] “Philadelphia Track Meet Set for U.S. Olympic Unit,” Special to the New York Times, June 26, 1980. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times, pg. D19.
[iii] Steve Currall, “The Olympics Were Here. Sort Of,” July 2012. https://hiddencityphila.org/2012/07/the-olympics-once-were-held-here-sort-of/.
[iv] Craig Neff, “…And Meanwhile in Philadelphia,” Sports Illustrated, July 28, 1980.
[v] A trio of Middle Eastern nations (Iraq, Egypt, and Lebanon) boycotted in 1956 due to the Suez Crisis, as well as a host of anti-Soviet sentiment causing the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland to withdraw. 1964 saw the withdrawal of North Korea and China, and finally 1976 witnessed a boycott of twenty-nine nations (predominantly African) due to outrage over the inclusion of New Zealand who was perceived as supporting apartheid.
[vi] Neff, “Meanwhile in Philadelphia.”
[vii] The four other international meets which took place in June and July of 1980 were the Bislett Games (Oslo, Norway), Weltklasse Zurich (Zurich, Germany), Memorial Van Damme (Brussels, Belgium), and the Internationales Stadionfest (ISTAF [Berlin, Germany]).
[viii] Specifically, the well-established Bislett Games in Oslo, Norway, where Mary Decker, among other notable American competitors had competed immediately prior to the hastily formed Liberty Bell Classic.
[ix] “Philadelphia Track Meet Set for U.S. Olympic Unit,” Special to the New York Times, June 26, 1980. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: New York Times, pg. D19.
[x] Neff, “Meanwhile in Philadelphia,” see full quote by the head of the U.S. Athletic Conference, Jimmy Carnes
[xi] Robert Fachet, “Palles Rolls to Lead in Decathlon,” The Washington Post, July 17, 1980. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, pg. F9.
[xii] Robert Fachet, “Spirits High for Philadelphia ‘Alternative,’” The Washington Post, July 16, 1980. ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Washington Post, pg. D6.
[xiv] Neff, “Meanwhile in Philadelphia.”
[xv] Neff, “Meanwhile in Philadelphia.” Chief among those who did not compete was unbeatable hurdler, Edwin Moses.
[xvi] The “Fabulous Four” of Auburn University consisted of Walker, Harvey Glance (himself an Olympic gold medalist in the 4x100m relay during the 1976 Games), Willie Smith, and Tony Easley.
[xvii] Another in a great line of American hurdlers in the late 1970s, Walker was the NCAA outdoor 400H champion in both 1978 and 1979.
[xviii] 481 Congressional Gold Medals (the highest civilian honor in the US) were awarded to members of the United States Olympic Teams across all disciplines for their sacrifice in the boycott.
[xix]Neff, “Meanwhile in Philadelphia.”