By Mike Pearson
Mike Durkin’s dream had been fulfilled when he became a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic track and field team on June 27, 1976. Now, it was time to actually wear the red, white and blue uniform at Olympic Stadium’s opening ceremonies in Montreal.
In today’s installment of Legends, Lists & Lore, the Illini icon recalls his 1976 Olympic experience, about earning a spot on America’s 1980 squad and about his disappointment when America boycotted the Olympic Games in Moscow.
(July 29, 1976 — second of five preliminary heats of the Olympic 1,500 meters) “The first heat went in 3:44 and they took the top three runners and the next three fastest non-qualifiers. So, three guys went with a 3:44. I had some decent runners in my heat, including (Great Britain’s) Steve Ovett. With a lap to go, I was making my move coming up the homestretch and we get out to the turn. Instead of keeping my momentum going, I decided not to run wide on the turn. I shut down slightly to get closer to the rail. When we got to the backstretch, the guys up in front just took off before I got to that point. I was just chasing the last 300 meters. I finished fifth in my heat. I ran 3:38.7 (a 3:55 mile). After that first heat, I thought I was going to be one of those qualifiers. I had the second-fastest qualifying time. John Walker, the eventual Olympic champion, was in the fourth heat. He had run the 800 earlier in the Games and didn’t do well, so he wanted to show everybody that he was in monster shape and he was 3:36 something (3:36.87) in his heat. He dragged his guys to great times, including one that was a tenth of a second faster than me. I had the 10th-fastest time in the 1976 Games, including the finals, but I didn’t make it out of the first round. I did set an Olympic record for the fastest non-qualifier in history. That’s a helluva honor to have, isn’t it?’”
(On deciding whether to train for a berth on the 1980 team) “In the Fall of ’78, I started thinking about the (1980) Olympic Games. I wanted to prove that 1976 wasn’t a fluke. That was my motivation. The plan was that my wife and I would go to Moscow. I had missed two years, so I was really behind the eight ball, really playing catch-up. Nineteen-seventy-nine had been a struggle, but I was able to break four minutes again. I was never in as great of shape as I was in ’76, but I was very competitive and ran 3:39 to make the team. It was just the opposite of what had happened to me in ’76. With a lap to go (at the 1980 Trials), I was fourth and third place was probably 20 yards ahead of me. It’s not easy to make up that ground, but I never quit. I caught that fourth-place runner with 10 yards to go and slid into third. I have a photograph on my piano at home. There were three of us — Steve Scott, Steve Lacy and me — with probably only 6 inches between us. But I was third and I was on that team. The difference between making the team or being forever disappointed with a fourth place was a microsecond.”
(Learning about President Jimmy Carter’s decision for the U.S. to boycott the ’80 games) “It’s seared in my mind. It was the middle of February and about 9 o’clock at night. I had passed the bar in ’78, so I was a practicing attorney at that point. I would come home from putting in a full day of work and then go out and train. On this particular night it was really cold, a lot of snow, so I was sitting in the bathtub, trying to thaw out. My wife came in and said, ‘Oh my God, I just heard on the news that President Carter said we’re going to boycott the Olympics.’ I was like, ‘Oh, that’s just talk. He’s just trying to pressure the Soviets. They’re never going to boycott the Olympics.’ But, as the days went on, it started becoming a reality. It was a hard pill to swallow. I predicted that in 1980 the Soviet bloc would boycott the ’84 Games in L.A. There’s no way the Soviet Union is going to come to America if America boycotts the Moscow Games, and that became a reality. I thought it was a futile gesture. There were a helluva lot more things the U.S. could have done to economically boycott the Soviet Union — grain shipments, etc. — everything we had in our power. But to take innocent athletes that were competing in a spirit of friendship, then to put them on the front lines and make them the only people that would sacrifice in this effort I thought was a ridiculous gesture and meaningless. You knew that the Soviet propaganda machine was just going to spin that the Americans were just afraid to come and compete against the Soviet athletes on their home ground … the weak Americans, etcetera. The irony is that I went to Europe and, a week after the Games, I raced against Soviet athletes … the way it should be.”
A member of the Rosemont law firm of Storino, Ramello & Durkin, Mike Durkin has been married to his wife, Joannie, for 43 years. They have three grandsons.
Sunday: Hugh Thornton, football (29)
Monday: Tevian Jones, basketball (20)
Tuesday: Gregg Schumacher, football (78)
Wednesday: Steve Lanter, basketball (62)
Thursday: Josh Brent, football (32)
Friday: Kris Dupps, basketball
Saturday: Christion Abercrombie, football (22)