Ache that won't quit

Olympics: Twenty years have passed since the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Games, but the memory -- and the pain of it -- is still fresh in the mind of Baltimore's Cliff Wiley.'80 boycott's pain still real for Wiley.

August 11, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Embers remain from the fire that raged inside Cliff Wiley two decades ago.

Wiley, 45, may be the most accomplished sprinter ever to come out of Baltimore. He was a paradox, a law student who thrived in events that have no time for strategy. He led the Black American Law Students Association at the University of Kansas and was accustomed to speaking out for his rights, so it took every ounce of restraint for Wiley to remain silent when he shook Jimmy Carter's hand at the White House.

Wiley is one of the Lost Olympians, the men and women who earned the right to represent the United States in the 1980 Games, but never went to Moscow. Then-President Carter responded to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by calling for a boycott of the Olympics. The Americans didn't go to the Games, but most U.S. allies did. Carter wasn't reelected.

Wiley finished second in the 200-meter dash at the U.S. track and field trials, months after Carter had announced the boycott. Some depressed athletes stopped training. Wiley held out hope that the president would relent at the last minute and send the Americans to Moscow, perhaps under the Afghani flag.

No reversal came. The Olympics went on in Moscow, and Carter held an uneasy tribute to what would have been the American team at the White House.

"Cliff was behind me in a receiving line," said Steve Simmons, a member of the American track staff. "To this day, it surprises me that he didn't say anything."

Wiley stood near the president and his wife, Rosalynn, in the track and field team portrait. You cannot detect him biting his tongue.

"It's an awe-inspiring thing to be in the inner grounds of the White House," Wiley said. "I respected the situation, but I guess I wanted to tell him that he was fighting with the wrong instrument. I heard all of this talk about sacrifice. I thought making a sacrifice was a voluntary thing.

"People tell you that if you work hard for something, you can attain it. We couldn't."

Last month, Wiley cried when he heard that Mervo grad James Carter will be the first local to run in the Olympics since 1972. He feels that if there had been no boycott in 1980 and he had been allowed to compete in Moscow, more inner-city children would have been inspired to try track and field in Baltimore.

The Cliff Wiley Track Classic, an age-group meet that began in 1985, will be held tomorrow at Douglass High, his alma mater. Wiley makes his living as an attorney in Kansas City, Kan., but he's back in town this weekend, preaching speed and scholarship.

"I left high school with two dreams," Wiley said. "Run in the Olympics, and be the mayor of Baltimore City."

Wiley is exhibit A in the argument that you not only have to be good to get to the Olympics, you have to be lucky.

He lost out in 1980, and in 1984, he was a mature quarter-miler, with two national titles to his credit in the 400, but an injury before the U.S. trials ended his final Olympic dream.

The first dream came in 1976, when he was a student at the University of Kansas. But that year a dispute with the NCAA disrupted his studies, and his athletic pursuits, Wiley said.

The organization declared him ineligible to compete, saying that the Pell Grant federal aid funds that he received in addition to his athletic scholarship were an extra benefit not allowed under NCAA rules. Wiley and Kansas fought the decision and won, establishing a precedent for college athletes who receive federal aid.

In 1977, Wiley became a part of American sprinting's inner circle. Simmons was an assistant coach for the U.S. team that would compete in the first World Cup. He passed over faster men and gave Wiley the third leg on the American 4x100 relay. Bill Collins, Steve Riddick, Wiley and Steve Williams ran a time of 38.03 seconds, which remained the world record until 1983.

Wiley qualified in the 200 meters, amid a maelstrom of anger, confusion and wistfulness. Carter announced that the boycott was "final and irrevocable" only a few weeks after the U.S. hockey team had performed its "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, a major moment in American Olympic history.

"It's tough," Wiley said. "You hear people say, `We didn't select a team that year.' I hear people who didn't make it, say, `Well, it didn't count.' We did select a team."

Wiley said the boycott didn't affect the quality of the field in the 200 at the U.S. trials in 1980. Roberta Belle, who followed Wiley at Douglass High in 1976 and made Morgan State a sprint power, was fifth in the women's 400. She acknowledges that her event was missing several of its favorites.

Simmons organized a salute to 30 of America's greatest track and field Olympians at the U.S. trials in Sacramento last month. Wiley attended the banquet that honored the likes of Bob Mathias and Edwin Moses, and said that it was an unsettling experience.

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