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Track drama sustained Olympics despite boycott

By Larry EldridgeSports editor of The Christian Science Monitor / August 5, 1980


The dramatic duels of Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, the incredible distance running of Miruts Yifter, the overall dominance of the host Soviet Union -- and of course the absence of the United States and other boycotting countries -- were among the many memorable aspects of the first Olympics ever held in a communist nation.

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Alexander Dityatin dominated men's gymnastics with eight medals, the most ever by any competitor in any sport in a single Olympics, while the women's spoils were divided among Montreal heroine Nadia Comaneci and a group of other acrobatic Eastern Europeans. Teofilo Stevenson became the first man to win he prestigious heavyweight boxing gold medal three times, while in other nottable achievements Vladimir Salnikov led the soviet Union to its first taste of men's swimming glory; East Germany's Waldemar Cierpinski matched Abebe Bikila's historic 1960-64 feat of winning the marathon twice in a row; and Yugoslavia took the men's basketball gold in a major surprise as the heavily favored Soviets lost twice in the preliminaries and had to settle for the bronze.

Even all that only scratches the surface of the usual two weeks of exciting, often record- breaking competition among some 6,000 athletes representing 81 nations. There were 36 world and 62 Olympic records set (compared with figures of 36 and 68 at Montreal), including six world marks in the glamour sport of track and field and the usual flood tide of both types of records in the pool by East Germany's women's team. But there were many sad moments here too in the failures of such past heroes as Lasse Viren, Alberto Juantorena, weightlifter Vasily Alexeev, and others to repeat their former triumphs.

Then too, of course, there was the boycott. The Soviet press played down the effect of the absence of the United States and 35 other nations in protest over the USSR's intervention in Afghanistan, noting correctly that the level of competition was nevertheless generally high. There's no doubt it would have been even higher, though, with everyone here -- especially in swimming, men's gymnastics and track and field, boxing, basketball, and several other sports.

The absence of so many Western athletes -- especially the fun-loving Americans -- was felt outside the arena too. "The Olympic Village is just not the same without the Yanks," was a commonly heard remark by competitors from Britain, Australia, and other countries. Add to this the overall rigidity of Moscow and the Soviet regime, plus the continuous inhibiting presence of large numbers of police and security men, and the result was an Olympics with less spark and spontaneity than usual. There was nothing wrong with the facilities, services, and organization, though. All of these were first rate for competitors and the entire Olympic entourage.

As for medals, with not only the United States missing its first games ever but such other relatively strong athletic nations as West Germany and Japan also absent, it was preety much an iron curtain show all the way. The hst nation dominated the unofficial overall standings as expected, with East Germany second by another wide margin, and everyone else pretty much along for the ride except for scattered individual triumphs.

The final tally showed the Soviets with staggering totals of 80 gold and 195 overall medals -- figures not ever likely to be equaled unless another Olympics comes along in which one of the top powers stays home (the previous highs, also set by the Soviets had been their 50 golds at Munich and their 125 medals at Montreal). East Germany was second in both counts, with Eastern European nations also taking the next four places. Britain was the top-scoring Western country with five gold (four in track and one in swimming) and 21 medals overall.