1980 Olympic boycott hits home for Notre Dame staff
By KATHLEEN O’BRIEN
Associate Sports Editor
A stab of regret hits Jill Lindenfeld as she struggles to watch the 2000 Olympic Games.
Debbie Brown feels drawn to the events although seeing the U.S. participants causes her a twinge of heartache.
Both Linden-feld, a Notre Dame assistant professional specialist in physical education, and Brown, the Notre Dame head volleyball coach, qualified for the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Their chance to compete was ripped away when President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the Games because of USSR actions in Afghanistan.
“I had mixed feelings, I can honestly say,” said Lindenfeld, who qualified as part of the U.S. field hockey team in the first year the Olympics included the sport. “I originally felt proud, like it was kind of my duty, that the U.S. would be doing a lot of things against Afghanistan, and this was just one thing. But that didn’t last very long because nothing really came out of it. It seemed useless and didn’t seem to prove anything.”
Brown, a part of the first U.S. volleyball team to earn a berth in the Olympics, also grappled with the U.S. decision to boycott the Games.
“I think a lot of people really questioned the decision,” Brown said. “When you look at what the boycott was meant to do and meant to accomplish, did it accomplish what it was meant to? No. To me, it was not the right thing to do, especially with the games meant to symbolize peace and unity.”
The boycott didn’t come as a complete shock to the American athletes.
“There was talk early in January of 1980 of the possibility of a boycott,” Brown said. “We really refused to believe it and hoped that things would work out and we would be able to go. It wasn’t that we hadn’t been preparing ourselves for it. It was still a shock and a disappointment just to think that something you had been striving for for so long kind of vanished before your eyes. It was a really hard pill to swallow.”
The lost opportunity was a doubly difficult blow for Lindenfeld and Brown. Their teams were in strong positions to win medals, and both women were reaching the ends of their careers. Lindenfeld, who still bubbles with enough energy to bowl over younger athletes, played on the U.S. field hockey team from 1971 to 1980. The team toured other nations every summer, seeking out top-notch tournaments in which to test their mettle. During the year, Lindenfeld was in school, first as an undergraduate at Westchester (Pa.) College, next as a local high school teacher and finally as a graduate student at USC.
The ’80 Games, the first to include field hockey, were her only chance for Olympic glory, as five knee operations began to take their toll on her body.
“I knew I had had five knee operations and been on the national team for nine years,” Lindenfeld said. “It was my last chance. I wasn’t going to be trying out in four years.”
Until Carter pulled the U.S. from contention, the field hockey team was a favorite to win. Of the six teams qualified for the Games, the U.S. was ranked third. It had also beaten the top two teams in previous games.
“We really had a good chance to win a good medal,” Lindenfeld said.
Four of the other five nations set to compete in field hockey followed the American lead and withdrew from the Games.
Only the USSR, the host nation, still took part. Like Lindenfeld, Brown had devoted her life to Olympic dreams in a vision shattered by the boycott.
“From the 1974 World Championships up until 1980, I had really been working up to that,” Brown said. “This was a huge step for us that we had qualified. We were fifth in the ’78 World Champion-ships. In ’76, we did not qualify, but between ’78 and the decision to boycott, the only team we had not beaten was Cuba.”
As a player on the national team, Brown did not enjoy the same endorsement dollars as today’s top athletes.
She received free room and board and volleyball equipment. Aside from that, she lived on a stipend of $80 per month, surviving on barely enough money to go out to dinner or see a movie. So waiting four more years in hopes of winning an Olympic medal was unrealistic.
“I had been working towards making the Olympic team since 1974, and really made that the priority in my life. I had left college early, and wanted to get my degree,” Brown said. “While I think I would have enjoyed continuing to compete, if I was going to continue to play volleyball, that was going to have to be my primary focus.”
The two women each married within a year of retirement from competition. Lindenfeld moved to St. Joseph, Michigan, the birthplace of her husband. In 1984, she took over as the Notre Dame field hockey coach, a position she held until 1990, when she stopped to work full-time as a Physical Education instructor.
Meanwhile, Brown completed her degree at Arizona State while working as an assistant coach.
She served as the Sun Devils’ head coach from 1983 to 1988. Brown took a two-year interim from college volleyball to work as an assistant coach for the U.S. national and Olympic teams, settling at Notre Dame in 1990.
“Coaching in the Olympics was a great experience, and I’m really thankful that I had that,” Brown said. “The opportunity to participate in the opening ceremonies and march in the parade and live in the village was great, but I do think it’s a different situation than being an athlete.”
Twenty years after their hearts were broken, the pain throbs a little less.
“I didn’t watch a single event the year of the boycott,” Lindenfeld said. “It hurt to think of it. It had been my goal, and they took that. But I’ve watched it more this year than four years ago, and more four years ago than the Games before.”
Brown harbors a small ache when the Olympics take center stage, but the sadness doesn’t keep her from viewing the competition.
“Every four years since 1980 when the Olympics have been on, there is a little bit of bringing back the experience and the hurt that I didn’t get to compete,” Brown said. “But I absolutely love watching it. It doesn’t really matter what the sport is; I just love watching it. I really find it hard to pull myself away from it.”
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, September 26, 2000