1980 Olympic boycott still stings wrestlers

During the spring of 1980, Lee Kemp, a celebrated amateur wrestler from the University of Wisconsin, had an Afro and a dream.

This was before Soviet tanks rumbled across the border into Afghanistan, and before he and his U.S. Olympic teammates became pawns on President Jimmy Carter’s political chessboard.

Because the 1980 Summer Games were in Moscow, there would be an Olympic boycott to protest the rumbling Soviet tanks. Sports and politics may be like a tuxedo and brown shoes, but that’s never stopped world leaders from putting them together.

Lee Kemp’s dream of earning an Olympic gold medal thusly was quashed, leaving him only with the Afro and unpaid training expenses. There was disappointment and disillusion. He also remembers being pissed off.

“All of those thoughts,” he said Friday, remembering the emotions of 35 years ago. “It was stupid.”

Today, Lee Kemp is 58. He no longer sports an Afro. He is bald, in a fashionable way. But he is svelte. He still looks fantastic.

In a few hours, he would be heading over to Salons C and D at the Gold Coast, where the International Fraternity of Wrestlers would pay homage to the 1980 U.S. team that trained so hard and sacrificed so much only to stay home.

The news release said there would be cake and coffee. It mentioned nothing of the stories that would be told, and of the frayed emotions.

Leroy P. Kemp Jr., born in Cleveland to a single mother before being adopted by Leroy Percy Kemp and his wife, Jessie, was sitting on a sofa outside the suites at the World Wrestling Championships at The Orleans.

Other former wrestlers kept dropping by to say hello. Bruce Baumgartner, the two-time Olympic gold medalist (Los Angeles and Barcelona) in the heavyweight freestyle division, dropped by. Baumgartner looked great, too.

I thought I’d better ask appropriate questions or risk getting put into a half nelson.

Lee Kemp said it’s terrible that President Carter has health problems but that 35 years later, he’s still bitter about the boycott that quashed his dream.

“All I kept thinking about, being a black American, is Jesse Owens (at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin). And him walking by Hitler in the stands, and Hitler looking the other way. And I thought, ‘We’re going to go to the Olympics.’ Because if ever there was going to be a boycott, that (1936) would have been the time to do it.”

We were joined on the sofa by Russ Hellickson, another former Wisconsin wrestler who coached Kemp as well as Las Vegas Events president Pat Christenson when they grappled for the Badgers. Hellickson won the heavyweight silver medal at Montreal in 1976. He, too, was denied a chance to go for the gold by those Soviet tanks and Jimmy Carter’s chessboard.

“I did not understand how an athlete representing the freest country in the world can be told by the president he cannot compete in an athletic event,” Hellickson said. “It was totally absurd.”

Maybe if the boycott would have led to those tanks rumbling back across the Soviet border, it might have been worth it. It might have lessened the churlish outcry.

Those tanks remained in Afghanistan for nine years.

What is it with tanks and Afghanistan, anyway? Now our armored divisions have been there 13 years, making the war with Afghanistan the longest in U.S. history.

Today, in hindsight, Russ Hellickson believes Jimmy Carter was a good man who made a bad decision.

Today, in hindsight, Lee Kemp still uses the word “stupid” when asked about the boycott.

Kemp was one of the most decorated amateur wrestlers in U.S. history. In college, he won three NCAA national championships and lost the fourth on a split decision as a true freshman.

He beat the great Dan Gable when he was at Wisconsin and Gable was at Iowa State.

Wrestling at 74 kilograms (163 lbs), Kemp was America’s first three-time world champion. And its youngest world champion. Wrestling people said it would have taken one of those Soviets tanks and a couple of air-to-surface missiles to prevent him from winning the gold in Moscow.

The boycott robbed him of his identity and legacy.

“I wanted to be an Olympic champion. I wasn’t,” he said.

“Sometimes I’m with groups of (wrestling) people, like with Jordan Burroughs (the 2012 Olympic gold medalist at 74 kilos), and people will say, ‘Look at all these Olympic champions together, let’s get a picture.’ And I’m sitting there, looking, and I’m like, ‘Well, that’s not me.'”

It must be like Jim Kelly hanging out with the other Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and somebody saying let’s get a picture of the Super Bowl QBs, and then Kelly (when he was healthy) having to excuse himself. But at least he got the chance to compete in four straight Super Bowls. Whereas Kemp and Hellickson and their American teammates and 65 countries that joined the boycott (or sat out because of economic reasons) did not.

Kemp said it was the start of a downward spiral that carried over to his personal and business life. It’s such a compelling story that an independent filmmaker is making a documentary about Lee Kemp that will be released in 2016, provided financing comes through.

So like his Olympic dream, the documentary also falls under the heading of unfinished business. Which somehow seems appropriate.

As we were finishing our chat, on the day Americans paused to remember 9/11, patriotic wrestling people inside the sold-out arena began to chant “USA! USA! USA!”

One of the American freestylers must have been having a good day. He could take comfort in knowing there was nothing standing in the way of his Olympic dream, except the other guy on the wrestling mat.

— Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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