From Philly with Love
When the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Franklin Field did its best to host an “alternative” Games.
From Philly with Love
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 024, July 2020
Words by Liam Boylan-Pett
Cover photo courtesy of Penn Athletics
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On Valentine’s Day 1980, at a National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room that included members of the C.I.A., the state department, and the treasury, White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler informed the room that thirty-six nations had expressed support for the United States’ stance on that year’s Summer Olympics in Moscow. That stance was made clear three weeks earlier, when President Jimmy Carter announced on Meet the Press, that, unless the Soviet Union withdrew their troops from Afghanistan, he would insist “the Olympic games be moved from Moscow to an alternative site, or multiple sites, or postponed or canceled.” The nations that supported Carter, Cutler told those in the room, believed it would be best if there were an alternative set of games at one or more sites.
The U.S. was already hard at work on this. Carter had enlisted Muhammad Ali to lobby in African countries, and a memo from the State Department to the American embassy in the Ivory Coast read, “You might also broach subject of getting Ivory coast to serve as a site for some Olympic-type sporting events in late 1980.” Planning an alternative Olympics would not, Cutler warned, be easy. The U.S. had to convince other international federations to sanction competitions, and they had to find a way to pay for them. “Although we prefer to hold the games elsewhere,” Cutler said, “we may be forced at some point to host the games ourselves.”
During a March 6 N.S.C. meeting, Cutler said plans for a post-Olympic competition were gaining traction. “We should know by the end of March,” he said, “whether the alternative games are a realistic prospect.” In a memo recounting the meeting, President Carter underlined that statement and wrote in the margins that they must happen. Two weeks later, Cutler reported that twelve nations had met in Geneva, and that they were zeroing in on locations for what was being called an “International Sports Festival” that would take place after the Moscow Olympics.
By the end of the month, however, those best laid plans had unraveled. “Both our efforts to generate an effective international boycott of the Moscow Olympics and our plan to convoke alternate games are in danger of turning to ashes,” a late-March memo by the N.S.C. staff read. The British Olympic Committee did not adhere to its government’s advice to boycott. Other nations that were boycotting did not want to host the separate competition. Everything was falling apart. Soon, the memos in the president’s daily briefings did not include information about the International Sports Festival or other news regarding the boycott.
In the end, sixty-four countries joined the U.S. to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Eighty countries, however, did compete in Moscow from July 19 to August 3, and thirty-six world records were set over multiple sports.
The International Sports Festival, meanwhile, never got off the ground. There would be no Olympic-style competitions in the Ivory Coast or Athens or Melbourne. There would be no rebuttal to the Moscow Olympics by those who boycotted after the fact. Organizing an international competition and festival for multiple sports proved, as Cutler predicted, too much to ask.
There was one sport, however, that was working behind the scenes with the White House to host some sort of Olympic alternative—a sport that was doing its best to give the country and President Carter something to show for the boycotted Olympic Games.
Which is why, on June 18, 1980, University of Pennsylvania Athletic Director, Charles Harris picked up the phone. Joe Onek, an aide to Cutler, was on the other end of the line. He had a request: Franklin Field had to host a track meet.
The astroturf covering the infield at Franklin Field on July 16, 1980, was like most astroturfs around the world: bright green, scratchy, stiff. On this day, it was also hot. Very hot.
Chandra Cheeseborough tried to stay out of the heat, which jumped over 100 degrees. But unless you were hiding in a locker room with a hard-, yet barely-, working air conditioner, there was no escape.
Cheeseborough, 21, had finished third in the 100 meters and first in the 200 at the Olympic Trials in Eugene at the end of June. She had made the Montreal Games as a 17-year-old four years earlier, but after finishing sixth in the 100 there, she felt she was ready to medal in Moscow. With the boycott, that was not going to happen.
So, Cheeseborough, training and racing with the famous Tennessee State Tigerbelles and coach Ed Temple, competed at every other meet she could. She flew to Europe and raced the 4 x 100-meter relay at a meet in Stuttgart, West Germany, on July 11. The relay team won handily in the meet where Edwin Moses extended his unbeaten streak in the 400-meter hurdles to forty-one. The next day, Cheeseborough finished a tired fourth in the 200 meters and doubled back to help the 4 x 100 relay team win again. Then, she was on a flight back to the U.S. for the Liberty Bell Track Classic in Philadelphia in four days.
And she was hot. Everyone was.
Well, everyone that was there. The meet sold only 3,181 tickets in a stadium that could fit closer to 60,000.
And yet, Cheeseborough did her best. She ran the second fastest 100 qualifying time of the day and broke the Franklin Field record in the 200 to lead all qualifiers, running 23.21 seconds.
It wasn’t the Olympics—“There’s nothing we can do about that,” she would later say—but at least she was running well.
Competitors in the decathlon and pentathlon, meanwhile, had a bit more to complain about.
“I only remember the heat,” Lee Palles said. The throwing events took place outside of Franklin Field near the Schuylkill River. Finding shade in Franklin Field was not easy, but it was nearly impossible on the throwing fields. The conditions were brutal for some of the world’s best athletes.
West Germany’s Guido Kratschmer had recently set the world record in the decathlon, but between events he sat in the sun as sweat dripped from the red beard on his face. Meanwhile, top U.S. athlete Bob Coffman would stand next to his wife between throws and events as she held an umbrella over the two of them for shade. Palles sneaked away to the locker room between events at least once to cool off with a shower.
After the first day, Palles, who finished second to Coffman at the Olympic Trials, led. But in the brutal heat, three of the nine athletes had dropped out.
The stadium was quiet. The competitors were hot. The meet, simply put, was not going the way anyone had hoped. As columnist Rod Beaton wrote, “For the athletes, the thrill rang hollow. And the miniature Liberty Bells, awarded instead of medals, rang not at all.”
Then the storms came in. Thunder bolted, lightning splattered the sky, rain poured down. The sparse crowd retreated beneath the grandstands and into the corridors.
Officials announced a delay.
Two hours later, the meet got a fresh start.
The actual planning of the meet had more than a few false starts. While, after March, memos passing over President Carter’s desk did not focus on the nixed Ivory Coast “sports festival” plans, there were still people within the White House working to put together some kind of competition.
A track and field meet seemed like the most logical choice. All that was needed was a track and field stadium and a group of athletes.
Or so it seemed.
At a press conference on Thursday, June 12, 1980, University of California, Berkeley Athletic Director Dave Maggard announced Edwards Stadium would host the Berkeley Invitational Track and Field Classic on July 16 and 17. He and Ollan Cassell, the executive director of The Athletic Congress (which would eventually become U.S.A.T.F.), had been speaking about a potential meet at Cal since the beginning of the year when the boycott seemed possible. Plus, there would be a meet at Franklin Field in Philadelphia the next week. Maggard and Cassell worked out funding from the United States Olympic Committee. They planned to house athletes in dorms. “This entire event is designed for the athletes so that they can show the American people and other countries what they have been training for during the past four years,” Cassell said.
The people responded resoundingly. The next day, tickets to both days of the event, with a seating capacity of 22,000, sold out by 3 p.m.
At the same time tickets were selling in droves, however, members of the Berkeley City Council felt blindsided. “This is madness,” City Councilman Bill Segesta told the press. “We were not consulted,” Mayor Gus Newport said. “The university contracted for these games, and the university will have to pay for the costs.” The council held a meeting on June 16, expressing concerns regarding the meet. The council was furious Maggard had acted so quickly in arranging the meet, without checking in with the city government. How would they pay for security? They suggested the alternative games could be a target for political violence as the Olympics were about to start in Moscow.
The meeting ended without any closure, and it appeared the meet would remain on the schedule.
By the end of the next day, however, the meet had been canceled. Cassell and The Athletics Congress backed out. They also canceled the meet in Philadelphia.
For less than a week, it seemed there was going to be an “alternative Olympics,” much to the delight of the White House. Then, after some pushback from the Berkeley City Council, Cassell said everything was getting “too politicized” and called off the meet.
Which was why Joe Onek picked up the phone to call Charles Harris.
Onek does not remember making the call—although he told me he was happy to learn he had done so—but it worked.
Harris had the right guy to direct an alternative Olympics: Jim Tuppeny was the meet director of the Penn Relays, and he was up to the task. About one week later it was official. Franklin Field would host The Liberty Bell Classic.
On June 27, the morning he found out the meet was on, Tuppeny was up at 6 a.m. in Eugene—he was there for the Olympic Trials—calling his assistant back on the East Coast devising everything they needed to accomplish for a meet that was being billed in the press as an alternate Olympics.
Tuppeny, who died in 2000, worked with local hotels to secure rooms. He hired race officials and volunteers, many who had helped at Penn Relays throughout the years. He reached out to over three hundred corporations, asking for support. He did his best to attract a crowd, which meant talking to as many news sources as possible. Franklin Field brought in crowds of 40,000 and more for Penn Relays, and while that seemed like a lofty goal, Tuppeny hoped for the best.
All the while, he took calls from the White House, checking in on the status of the meet, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. In one call with Betsy Frawley, who was the White House’s representative on many of the calls, she asked about any formal ceremonies that might be planned, what with the ambassadors and high-level U.S. government officials that would be in attendance. She even implied President Carter might come. “Tell him we’ll even let him jog a lap around the track,” Tuppeny said.
Carter would not make an appearance at the meet—he wasn’t the only one. Edwin Moses was the biggest name in the sport to declare he wouldn’t run. Neither did discus star Mac Wilkins.
Twenty-nine countries, from West Germany to China, would be represented at the meet. Many athletes flew in the night after competing at the Bislett Games in Oslo. And on July 16, 1980, they showed up for the opening ceremonies of the Liberty Bell Classic, which Tuppeny had cobbled together in time. It was hot as hell, but it was a track meet in Philadelphia hosting some of the world’s best athletes who weren’t going to be competing in Moscow.
And once the rain stopped and temperatures cooled, it seemed like the meet was building steam. The problem, however, was that the Liberty Bell Classic, no matter which way you sliced it, was no Olympic Games.
“The feeling of being there at Penn Relays,” John Gregorek said and trailed off. “So, it was kind of a different feeling.” Gregorek had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in the steeplechase, but ran the 1,500 meters in Philadelphia, taking fifth place in a sit-and-kick race that Steve Scott won in 3 minutes, 40.19 seconds. Gregorek, did look back fondly on that summer and his chance to travel with the boycotting team to Europe for a few races.
Kip Rono of Kenya won the 5,000 meters over a who’s who of U.S. stars that included Matt Centrowitz and Alberto Salazar. Renaldo Nehemiah won the 110-meter hurdles and Stephanie Hightower won the 100-meter hurdles. A young Carol Lewis took second in the long jump. Mary Decker ran a scintillating 4 minute, 0.87 seconds in the 1,500 to set an American Record.
There was plenty of talent in Philadelphia on Day Two of competition, and some fans showed up, too. It wasn’t 40,000, but 20,111 fans filled much of the lower bowl on yet another hot day.
Joe Onek, the white house counsel who had called the Penn athletic director a month earlier was there. He remembered being thrilled watching Nehemiah dust the field in the hurdles and that they had actually pulled off such a great meet in Philadelphia.
On the track and in the media, however, no one could avoid the elephant in the room: That these athletes wouldn’t have a shot at Olympic glory.
“In Europe, everybody was getting on the plane to go to Moscow,” Decker said after her American Record run, “and we were going home.” After a brutal day of travel, she had run solo from the start and was buoyed by the fans, claiming those in attendance helped her get up for it. Her record run did not make amends for the missed opportunity. “You can’t wake up and [the boycott isn’t] there. You have to face it.”
Chandra Cheeseborough faced it, too. She ran away from the field in the 100 meter dash, took second in the 200 meters, and was on the U.S.’s winning 4 x 100-meter relay team. Then, she was off to Florida for The Sunshine State Games—which was an Olympic style festival being put on less as a substitute to the Olympics, but an event that had staying power (the Sunshine State Games still exist today). Cheeseborough won the 100 meters there, too, but was down about the boycott. “When most people talk about the Olympics,” she said, “they say how sorry they are we aren’t competing. But what bothers me the most is I was looking forward to going to Moscow to meet new friends. I’m just trying to stop thinking about it. There are no alternatives to the Olympics.”
Cheeseborough would eventually get another shot at her Olympic dreams. In 1984, she won silver in the 400 meter dash in 49.05 seconds, and then was on the gold-medal winning 4 x 100- and 4 x 400-meter relay teams, becoming the first woman to win gold on both relays at the Olympics. Today, she is the coach at Tennessee State University.
In 1980, however, her glory came in a half-full stadium in Philadelphia. That was just the way it was that year for athletes who had to boycott the Moscow Games. Their 1980 Olympic experience was simply different.
On the second day of competition, just after they had finished ten long, grueling events, Lee Palles was in the locker room in the bellows of Franklin Field packing up some of his stuff after yet another shower. He finished second in the decathlon with 8,009 points—he was always happy to sneak over the eight-grand mark. Weng Kangqiang and Zhu Quilin of China, who had finished third and fifth, respectively, were in the locker room, too, sitting on one of the benches in front of a row of lockers. Either Kangqiang or Quilin—Palles does not remember which one—motioned for Palles to come over. There was a cardboard box sitting between the Chinese athlete’s feet. Palles walked over.
The athlete did not speak English, but he said, “Bah,” and pointed at Palles. Palles looked around, unsure of how to respond. “Bah,” the athlete said again and pointed. Then, he held up both hands—one had all its fingers extended, the other had three fingers up. “Bah,” he said again, and it hit Palles: He was saying the number eight, as in the 8,000 points Palles scored.
“Yes!” Palles said and laughed. “Eight-thousand.”
The Chinese athlete then reached down into the box between his legs, which Palles realized was full of ice—this was the athlete’s cooler that day. He pulled out a can of Coke and handed it to Palles. Palles took it and thanked his competitor. Then they drank a Coke together.
It was as Olympic as it gets, Palles thought. Two athletes, after a long, hot day of competition, with a Coke—and no, it was not lost on him that he was sharing a product that had been a corporate sponsor of The Games since 1928.
He would never compete in the Olympics. He missed making the team in 1984. He currently lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is the president of ArCHPower Solutions, a clean energy company.
Speaking about the 1980 Liberty Bell Classic, he did not express resentment about the boycott. He focused mostly on his experience and that dreadful heat. He did not even remember the thunderstorm that shook the meet at near the end of the first day.
What he did remember was the athlete experience. He liked competing in front of the family and friends who were able to make it to the meet.
Back in June 1980,when the alternative meet at Cal was canceled, Pentathlete Marilyn King was relieved. “The athletes would not want to come back [to the Bay Area], unless they needed a ride home from Europe,” she said. “They were expecting the athletes to fly all night long to arrive here and compete the next day. It is very clear that this was done in flagrant disregard to the athletes.”
At the meet, Dick Buerkle, who ran the 5,000 meters, said, “I’m kind of for the boycott. I’d much rather see us use a peaceful means of opposition rather than dig up the guns.” He had a similar feeling to King, however. “What I don’t like,” he said, “and what most of the athletes I talk to don’t like, is that we were left entirely out of the decision-making process. We were treated like babies. In a country that was founded on the ballot, we had no vote.”
Missing, as Buerkle noted, from the majority of the planning of an alternative Olympics or “Festival of Sports” was an important component: The athlete’s voice.
It might have helped.