Americans at Olympics -- scarce but still there

Despite the boycott, a handful of US citizens managed to compete in the Moscow Olympics by one means or another, and at least one of them is going home with a medal.

Mike Sylvester, who holds dual US-Italian citizenship and has been playing basketball in the Italian League for six years, was a member of that country's team, which upset the Soviet Union in the preliminaries and went on to win the silver medal.

Sylvester, a former Cincinnati resident who attended Dayton University, said that when he first heard of the US boycott he thought it was a great idea, "but then our so- called allies didn't stand behind us." He said his own situation offered him little choice but to compete, once Italy decided to send a team.

"If I didn't, I would have been disqualified for life from playing there," he explained.

Another competitor was long jumper Bill Rea, a 28-year-old Pittsburgh dentist who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Austria. But even though he lives in the United States, Rea's appearance here was not in any way an attempt to get around the American absence via a technicality. On the contrary, in competing for the Austrian team he was simply carrying out a plan he had made long before President Carter made his boycott proposal last January.

Rea, whose mother is Austrian, just missed making the US team in 1972, when he finished fourth by an agonizing few inches in the Olympic trials. He tried again in 1976, this time failing even to make the finals, then retired from competition for two years while pursuing his career.

He went back into training in 1979, however, and a fifth place in the US championships that year persuaded him to try for Moscow. He decided, however, that it would make more sense to try for the Austrian team, where the level of competition in his specialty is not so high.

He jumped well last fall and winter, including some good results in big meets in the US, and made the team. The story doesn't have a happy ending, though, for he didn't have a good day in the qualifying event here and failed to make it to the final.

Three boxers from Puerto Rico, an American territory whose people are US citizens, also competed in the games. Their presence came about after the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee went against the wishes of its government and voted to send a team to the games, then backtracked to the extent of deciding to send only one "symbolic athlete."

The man chosen was Alberto Mercado, the Pan Am Games and World Cup flyweight champion. Two other boxers -- Luis Pizarro and Luis Molinas -- were brought along to help him train, however, and once here the coach decided he might as well enter them in the competition, too.

Ironically, Mercado was upset in the first round, but his sparring partners won two fights each to advance to the quarterfinals. One more victory for either man would have meant at least a bronze medal, but Molinas, who had hurt his hand in his second fight, had to default, while Pizarro lost a unanimous decision to Cuba's Adolfo Horta.

Still another American in the competition, though not a participant, was Mike Perry, a former Siena College basketball player who now coaches the Swedish national team. Like Sylvester and Rea, he felt the boycott had no bearing on his own situation.

"I'm a professional coach," he said. "I have a two-year contract to coach the Swedish team. I must fulfill that obligation."

Perry had the same job once before, in 1973-75; coached at the small-college level in the United States for a while; spent 1978-79 coaching in Saudi Arabia; and was headed back for another stint on home soil last year when the Swedes came to him again with an offer he felt was too good to refuse. And so he wound up here, where his charges played well enough to post a 3-2 record but didn't advance to the medal round.

Then in addition to all these US citizens, there are, of course, numerous athletes from other nations who have made names for themselves athletically at American colleges and universities.

Perhaps the best known is Swedish swimmer Par Arvidsson, who helped the University of California to two NCAA championships and who won the gold medal in the 100-meter butterfly event here. Arvidsson cited his US experiences, in fact , in discussing his Olympic triumph, saying he had felt the same sort of pressure in those NCAA meets -- especially the second one, when Cal was the defending champion and he knew he probably had to win both butterfly events (which he did) if the Golden Bears were to retain their crown.

Another US-trained swimmer who was successful here was 100-meter breaststroke winner Duncan Goodhew, who spent three years at North Carolina State before returning to his native Great Britain for his final year of preparation.

On the basketball court, in addition to Sylvester, there was Kresimir Cosic, who played his college ball at Brigham Young University and is now the center for the Yugoslav team that knocked the Soviets out of the running for the gold medal, and then won the big prize for itself via an 86-77 victory over Italy in the final.

And as usual there are several track and field athletes who have competed for US colleges and universities, including Jamaica's Don Quarrie (Southern Cal), the 1976 gold medalist in the 200 who had to settle for the bronze here, and Tanzania's Suleiman Nyambui (University of Texas-El Paso), who ran strongly in his heat and semifinal to qualify for tonight's 5,000-meter final.

Thus, whether by birth, residence, dual citizenship, or college backgrounds, there was definitely a small but select "American" presence at these games -- and even on the medal platform.

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