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A lingering pain
It hadn’t hit him until that point, the fact that then-President Jimmy Carter had chosen to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games as a response to the Russian incursion into Afghanistan.
Like most athletes, Galimore, the son of pro football star Willie Galimore and now an executive for locally-based USA Gymnastics, had a gift for compartmentalizing. Until then, he was focused only on being one of America’s best-ever gymnasts and earning a spot on the U.S. team.
Then he went to Washington for the “celebration.”
“We were at the Kennedy Center,” Galimore said this week. “(Singer) Patti LaBelle was going on, praising us for our sacrifice, and it suddenly hit me. Everything I had achieved and what had been taken away. And I was crushed. At that moment, it all came crashing down, and I bawled like a baby.
“I remembered my first gymnastics class when I was 11 years old — Sept.
23, 1969, at 3:30 (in Tallahassee, Fla.). From that day on, I woke up every day thinking about what I could do that day to move toward my goal of becoming an Olympian.”
“Then, when you make the U.S. team and get so close to the goal, to have it taken away, you hit this wall and it’s like, ‘OK, what’s next? What am I waking up for tomorrow?’ You go through this mourning period. And it takes awhile.”
There was little doubt, he was going to become a breakout Olympic star who would cash in on his moment on the world stage — not only was he America’s best, but he was poised to become the first black gymnastics champion. He envisioned multiple gold medals.
He saw himself working in television. He had a charmed life set out before him.
And then, courtesy of President Carter — who later said he regretted the decision — it was taken away, the athletes being used as pawns on some geopolitical chess game.
It has been 30 years since that “celebration” in Washington. And it has brought back a lot of harsh memories for a lot of forgotten Olympians.
“Our nation does not know us as Olympians,” wrote Anita DeFrantz, an Olympic rower in 1980 and currently the president of the LA84 Foundation. She was born and raised in Indianapolis.
“Our sublime moments of exertion and of triumph do not exist. We have no memories and you have no memories of us. We forever are the team with no result.” “We had done the work, paid the price, made the life decision that would bring us to the Olympic Games, yet we were denied access to the culminating event. Our team was composed of private citizens who had found a way to finance their dream.”
“The dream was one step from reality. Our reward? We were given our uniforms. We had a parade in Washington although nobody really knew why. It was a ride in a trolley car from the Capitol down Pennsylvania Avenue a couple of blocks and back. We had a picnic at the White House.”
“The cost of our visit was charged to the United States Olympic Committee.”
For Galimore, and for several other members of that forgotten Olympic team, a kind of depression set in. Galimore isn’t sure if it was clinical depression — “as an athlete, I was conditioned to getting up, dusting myself off and working toward the next goal” — but he admits, there were years he had a hard time justifying the case for getting out of bed.
For years, he searched for a purpose. He moved to California, did some stunt work in Hollywood, did a gymnastics show with fellow Olympian Kurt Thomas at SeaWorld, worked as a spotter during the 1984 Games.
“I don’t look back with bitter thoughts or a bitter heart,” he said.
“If I knew we were going to boycott, I’d still do it all over again. I wouldn’t change a thing. (Gymnastics) took me out of being on the streets. I traveled all over the world, met people, got to be a role model and help motivate other black kids to get into the sport.
“I’ll admit, for a while there, I thought about what might have been. . . . But I’ve moved on. I didn’t really have a choice.”
Two things happened in the late 1980s: He met his wife, Loree, and he rekindled his passion by opening a gymnastics school in Tallahassee. “Up to that point, I was kind of staggering,” he said. “But that gave me a mission and a goal.”
Currently, he is working at USA Gymnastics as vice president of events, Olympic relations and the men’s program. In the end, the servicemen and women in the Armed Forces make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, but the 1980 Olympians should not be consigned to the dustbin of history, either.
Someday, sooner than later, the United States government should do something to acknowledge these athletes, to celebrate them and remind everybody that they were every bit the champions as Michael Johnson and Kerri Strug.
There have been overtures — the 1980 U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams will be recognized Aug. 14 in Hartford, Conn., during the U.S. Nationals — but nothing large, nothing truly significant has ever been done for these forgotten Olympians.
Right now, they are footnotes. For men like Ron Galimore and women like Anita DeFrantz, that needs to change.