COC’s Tokyo decision brings back memories for athletes who missed 1980 Games

Time hasn’t diminished the myriad of emotions Jay Triano felt in 1980.

There was the euphoria of the Canadian men’s basketball team qualifying for the Moscow Summer Games. Then days later came bitter disappointment when Canada boycotted that competition after the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Forty years later, there is a scenario with similarities for Canadian Olympians. On Sunday, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced Canada won’t compete in the 2020 Tokyo Games unless they’re postponed until 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Triano, a 61-year-old native of Tillsonburg Ont., who was raised in Niagara Falls, Ont., whole-heartedly supports the COC’s decision.

“It was political back then, it was to make a statement and take a stand on something,” said the current Charlotte Hornets lead assistant coach, who played 12 seasons with the national team before twice serving as head coach. “This here is worldwide, it affects everybody, it’s going to affect everybody and the safety of our athletes is important.

“I don’t think because the Russians were invading Afghanistan, any of us were in danger by going to those Olympics. But I think we’d put our athletes in danger here so it’s the right call.”

Fomer pentathlete Diane Jones-Konihowski and ex-gymnast Elfi Schlegel, who both were slated to compete for the ’80 Canadian squad, both agree.

“At the end of the day it’s about health, a life-or-death situation, people are dying of this disease,” said Jones-Konihowski. “Athletes can’t train and so if I can’t train I don’t want to go to an Olympic Games.

“Some athletes have already qualified but still can’t train. There’s a whole whack of athletes who haven’t qualified yet and so it just presents a very unfair, very incredible process.”

Added Schlegel: “I get it that those young athletes out there, they’re not going to fully be able to embrace this. For the first 24 hours it will be tears of, ‘But I’ve worked my whole life for this.’ This isn’t a time to be selfish in your thoughts. You can be sad, but get over it and move on. I know that’s tough love, but it will be OK.”

Triano and the Canadian men’s team were in San Juan, Puerto Rico, when they were told of Canada’s boycott. The news came just days after the squad qualified for the Moscow Games by winning a qualification tournament.

“Looking back, we didn’t understand as athletes,” Triano said. “The Russians were invading Afghanistan but the Afghani athletes were still going to go and participate in the Games in Moscow and yet the Americans and Canadians weren’t going to make a point.

“Again, I was 18 or 19 at the time, it was like, ‘I just want to play basketball. I want to go to the Olympic Games,’ which was something I trained for.”

Triano said Canada’s boycott only served to strengthen his resolve to play for Canada in the Olympics, which he did in 1984 and ‘88. But the former Toronto Raptors head coach feels bad that some senior members of the national team never got that chance.

“You feel bad that the older players on the team never got that chance to play in the Olympics,” he said. “At least I was fortunate to.”

Jones-Konihowski was training in New Zealand when told of the boycott by an Edmonton radio reporter. After representing Canada at the ‘72 and ‘76 Games, Jones-Konihowski was considered to be a strong medal contender in Moscow.

When told of the news, Jones-Konihowski didn’t hold back voicing her displeasure. That created a firestorm of criticism that was directed not only at Jones-Konihowski but also those close to her.

“My husband (former Edmonton Eskimo John Konihowski) never let me see the hate mail, the two girls who were living in my apartment at the time got terrible phone calls,” she said. “Friends of mine in the media wrote scathing articles about me and the Edmonton Eskimos’ reception lit up like crazy.

“I remember (former Edmonton head coach) Hugh Campbell supported me and my decision and they (Eskimos) supported John but John got it on the football field, ‘Oh you’re the husband of a communist.’ My mother was getting it … I lost my major sponsor. It was a really, really crazy time.”

Even 40 years later, Jones-Konihowski, a 69-year-old Vancouver native now living in Calgary, doesn’t regret her actions.

“I don’t … because it (the boycott) was wrong,” she said. “We were still trading wheat with Russia, we were still having Aeroflot planes land (in Canada).

“Suddenly we were a priority with the federal government. We’d never been before … and so I was very, very angry.”

And at more than just the Canadian government.

“I was angry at our Canadian Olympic Association at that time because they folded,” she said. “The British Olympic Committee stood up to (then-PM Margaret) Thatcher and said, ‘We’re going,’ and we didn’t at the time.”

Afterward, Jones-Konihowski was invited to compete in Moscow but declined.

“I wish I would’ve had the courage to go because it would’ve been the first time an athlete would’ve gone without a flag, without a country, without whatever,” she said. “I became so much more courageous a couple of years later when I also got more support, people coming to me saying, ‘You know, you were right.’”

Schlegel was just 16 years old when Canada boycotted the Moscow Games. It’s a decision the 55-year-old married mother of three admits she initially had trouble accepting.

“Back then, I was 16 years old boycotting something I couldn’t possibly begin to understand,” she said. “It was so political in nature and I remember my father trying to guide me through it and make me understand what the heck was going on in the world and it was very confusing.”

But Schlegel’s perspective has changed.

“I’m a mother of three children (aged 18, 17, 14) and we just packed up our oldest from Queen’s,” said Schlegel, who owns and runs a gymnastics centre in Oakville, Ont. “I’m now understanding how my parents felt.

“I’d never send my daughter or my sons (to Tokyo in July). Never.”

Schlegel, who won Commonwealth and Pan Am Games gold, also credits her father for helping redirect her focus towards securing an athletic scholarship at the University of Florida.

“I didn’t know they existed and actually didn’t care,” she said. “But my father did … and I’m forever grateful because that was my way to leave the sport on a note that was good for me and my mental and physical health.

“It wasn’t the Olympics but boy there were times the NCAA felt like the Olympics to me because it was great comradery.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.

Dan Ralph, The Canadian Press


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