MOSCOW OLYMPICS; What they might have been

Kurt Thomas vs. the Soviets in the competition that was supposed to put men's gymnastics on the map. . . . Evelyn Ashford attempting to smash the decade-long German domination of the women's sprint events. . . . The built-in drama of a prospective US-USSR basketball showdown before 45,000 screaming Muscovites. . . . The strongest US women's swimming team of all time seeking to regain the supremacy it lost to East Germany four years ago. . . . Henry Rono, Bill Rodgers, and other great performers from Kenya, the US, and elsewhere filling out one star-studded field after another in the track and field competition. . . . The Cinderella story of the US women's volleyball team. . . .

The list goes on and on, and still it just scratches the surface of the people, events, and dramatic moments that once figured to make these 190 Olympics the most exciting games ever. But now, of course, with the United States and several other key countries staying home because of the Soviet involvement in Afghanistan, all these things exist only in that saddest of all categories: "What might have been."

Trying to pick out any one "biggest disappointment" is an impossible task, but in human terms it's difficult to imagine a sadder story than that of Henry Rono. Four years ago the great Kenyan distance runner had to skip the games due to the African boycott in Montreal.Now in a year when many other African nations are participating he finds himself shut out again because of his country's support of the US position.

Also right up near the top has to be the case of those female volleyballers. In a sport where the United States had never before even qualified for Olympic competition, a group of dedicated and determined young woman spent the better part of two years turning themselves into not only a respectable team but a bona fide gold medal contender.

Establishing the country's first national team in their sport, the women set up their training camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1978. Then working doggedly under the brilliant and patient leadership of Dr. Arle Selinger, they rose from obscurity to the position of an acknowledged world power in their sport. A mostly victorious 30-match exhibition tour against Japan's defending Olympic gold medal team in 1979 was the first big clue, then a tournament victory in which they beat a strong Soviet team in the finals was another. They also made a strong showing in the Spartakiad Games here last summer, and were all set for a peak effort until the boycott shattered their dreams.

Women's swimming also had figured to be one of this year's dramatic highlights via the anticipated comeback of the US women. Four years ago the once-dominant Americans had a rude awakening -- not because they swam poorly (they set US records in every single event), but because the East Germans staged an absolutely awesome performance, breaking world records left and right en route to winning 11 gold medals. Since then, however, the Americanshave surged to the top once again -- and they were ready to make it official in Moscow.

"There's no question in my mind that they were ready to dominate again," said US Coach George Haines. They proved it in the 1978 world championships, when they won most of the gold medals, and they proved it again in an international meet earlier this year when they beat the East Germans in 10 of 14 events."

The versatile Tracy Caulkins had perhaps the best chance to emerge as a multiple medal-winning superstar of the games, but at least three other US women looked like good possibilities for more than one trip to the victory stand. Cynthia Woodhead would have been one of the top favorites in the 100 and 200 freestyles, Mary Meagher in the butterfly events, and Linda Jezek in the backstroke.

"Just the absence of these four leaves the entire competition very watered down," Haines said. "And there are a lot of other top swimmers who would have given us chances for 1-2-3 finishes in some events."

Kurt Thomas is another potential gold medal winner who now will never get his big chance. After becoming the first American male gymnasts to win an international competition in nearly half a century in 1978, the young man from Indiana won two more gold medals and three silvers at the 1979 world championships, showing he was all set to challenge the traditional Soviet and Japanese supremacy.

And although he is the most widely known, Thomas was by no means the only US prospect. Bart Conner, Ron Galimore, and others also had medal chances, while the team was hopeful of at least duplicating its bronze medal at the '79 world championships.

The US women, despite dramatic improvement in the last few years, still didn't figure to give the Eastern Europeans any sleepless nights, but young standouts like Marcia Frederick and Tracee Talevera had at least outside medal chances.

Evelyn Ashford, of course, is the young runner who electrified the sports world by beating the top East German sprinters in both the 100 and 200 meter events at the World Cup meet in Montreal -- establishing herself as a strong gold medal threat, probably even the favorire, for Moscow. Ironically, she was unable to run in the US trials because of an injury, and if the Americans had been competing at Moscow the US Olympic Committee would have been faced with the dilemma of either bending its absurdly rigid team selection rules or else leaving home the only US sprinter with a ghost of a chance for victory -- and given its past history, it might very well have opted for the latter choice despite the certain uproar it would have caused.

"Marathon Man" Bill Rodgers and super hurdler Renaldo Nehemiah are others who would have been favored for gold in their events if all had gone well but who now must give up the whole idea or else think in terms of four more years. Rodgers, like Ashford, is not on the official US team, having skipped the trials , but his was just a case of not bothering because their was no prospect of a Moscow trip, and presumably he would have been there otherwise. Nehemiah, of course, has dominated the high hurdles for the last couple of years, won the US trials, and would have been a big favorite in Moscow.

Athletes like this, who had not yet tasted the thrill of Olympic victory and were favored to do so, are the biggest losers in the boycott situation -- but not the only ones. Others, like defending champions Edwin Moses in the intermediate hurdles and Mac Wilkins in the discus, while able to console themselves with their Montreal gold medals, still see four years of training going down the drain. And of course the entire sports world also loses out due to the absence of the many classic contests the presence of these and other such stars would have assured.

Rodgers trying to cap his career with the Olympic medal that had always eluded him; Rono, countryman Mike Boit, American distance star Craig Virgin, and others beefing up the fields in all the races from 800 to 10,000 meters, creating the prospect of some truly spectacular races. The young and exciting US basketball team trying to overcome the Soviets' "home court advantage" and uphold its long international dominance in the sport ("I think we would have won ," US Coach Dave Gavitt said longingly on the eve of the games. "It wouldn't have been easy, but based on how we played in our series against the National Basketball Association, and knowing we would have had another full month of preparation, I'm confident we would have got that gold medal again."). The US boxers trying to add to their Montreal glory in a competition that now will probably be dominated by Cuba, with the USSR and other Eastern bloc nations moving up to claim more than their usual share of medals.

These are just a few of the lost moments that come to mind, and of course there are so many more. But all anyone can do now is file them away in that "Might Have Been" folder, enjoy what is left of the 1980 games, and then start looking ahead toward Los Angeles and 1984.

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