Johnson looks back at 1980 Olympic boycott

Johnson looks back at 1980 Olympic boycott

CHAMPAIGN – As he welcomes the visitor into his Bielfeldt Building office, Mark Johnson knows the question is coming. He hears it every four years. Like clockwork, the timing coincides with the Summer Olympics.

The question is some version of "Are you bitter?" Johnson, with a straight face, answers "no." Every time.

Flashback to 1980. Johnson, a former star wrestler at Michigan and an Iowa assistant coach, won the 198-pound freestyle weight class in the U.S. Olympic Trials. By rights, that meant a spot in the Moscow Olympics, where Johnson figured to make a strong bid to win the gold medal.

"You remember the moment you made the Olympic team, which is the ultimate in our sport," Johnson said. "Other than winning the gold medal.

"I had beaten the silver and bronze medalist before and after the Olympics, so I certainly had a chance to be an Olympic champion."

Politics and the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan eliminated Johnson's chance. President Jimmy Carter threatened an Olympic boycott unless the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan by Feb. 20, 1980.

A month after the deadline, the boycott became official. The U.S., Canada, West Germany, China, Japan and 57 other countries stayed home.

All of the Olympians were honored at the time, receiving a pair of medals – one from Congress and one from the USOC – during a trip to Washington. The athletes met with President Carter, though some weren't excited about the idea.

"Some people were boycotting Carter," Johnson said. "We got to the White House and I remember the women's rowing team had boycott Carter. They wouldn't shake his hand."

Johnson wasn't among those showing disdain toward the president. He keeps a photo of himself shaking hands with President Carter.

Not that Johnson thinks the decision was right.

"At the time, President Carter made a mistake," Johnson said. "I saw it as something he tried to use politically. It didn't work."

But to Johnson, if the president orders a boycott, you boycott.

Years later, after reading a book by President Carter, Johnson wrote him a letter.

"It was a lot about his work with Habitat for Humanity," Johnson said. "I wrote, 'I just read your book. I think it's neat what you do. By the way, I was a member of that 1980 Olympic team. Best wishes, Mark Johnson.' I got an immediate response back from him. It was more of a thank-you letter for thanking him. It wasn't about the Olympic team. I'm beyond that."

Some of the athletes remain bitter today. A recently released book, "BOYCOTT: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games," includes quotes from several of the 1980 U.S. Olympians. They were asked what they would say to Carter about the boycott today.

"Butt out," swimmer Glenn Mills said. "The U.S. government has nothing to do with the sport. They don't support us financially. Never have and never will. He obviously wasn't an athlete because anyone who has ever been involved in international athletics will realize the way we're going to bring this world together is by kids coming together to compete."

You won't find any quotes from Johnson in the book. His anger left him almost immediately after he returned from Washington.

Long before the boycott, Johnson had agreed to be a master of ceremonies at the 1980 Illinois Special Olympics, which were scheduled for Augustana College in Rock Island, Johnson's hometown.

"The Lord put that in my lap because all of the bitterness left that day," Johnson said. "I'll be disappointed probably forever, but I'm not bitter because of that moment, giving out the medals at the Special Olympics."

Unknown destination

The 1980 wrestling trials were held Brockport, N.Y. Johnson went in as the favorite and won the title.

"I felt like I could beat anybody in the world at that time," Johnson said.

Then came the waiting. The team stayed at the site to train, just in case. After a couple of weeks, the reality of the boycott became final.

"They cut our training down," Johnson said. "We still worked out, but it wasn't like a true training camp."

Johnson and one of his buddies, Todd Rosenthal, decided to enjoy themselves.

"We made it a fun vacation," Johnson said. "We went out. We went shopping. We were there two or three more weeks."

Johnson's family had made the difficult plans to go to the Games. No direct flights from Rock Island to Moscow. Johnson's brother planned his wedding around the Olympic dates.

"I was really looking forward to it," Johnson said. "I thought, 'Man, the pressure's off once you are on the team. Let's go.' "

Wrestling against the Communist bloc wasn't new to Johnson. At the meets, politics played a part in the outcome.

"You always had three refs," Johnson said. "If two out of three were Communist, you better really whip the guy. That's part of the game. That's just the way it was."

At age 24, Johnson was young for an Olympic wrestler. He could have waited another four years to take a shot at the 1984 Games, scheduled for Los Angeles.

But he decided to move on with his life. He married wife Linda and the couple had their first of two daughters (Tricia and Mackey). His coaching career soon took off, Johnson working as Dan Gable's assistant at Iowa before becoming the head coach at Oregon State and Illinois.

"I lost the eye of the tiger," Johnson said. "I still worked out and could still whip the guys after that, but I just didn't have that desire to do all the extras that it took to be the best."

The reunion

The members of the 1980 team were invited to this year's wrestling trials in Las Vegas. Johnson went, and all but two showed.

Of course, Johnson was going to be there anyway as the coach of former Illini Matt Lackey, who participated in the trials.

"The thing you dread is, 'What's this going to be like when they do a reunion thing?' " Johnson said. "It went way better than I ever expected. It was first class."

There was an autograph session that was packed with fans. So many that it had to be cut off. The team was introduced before the final matches. They took photos and were given a leather Olympic jacket and warmups.

"It was awesome," Johnson said.