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Tuesday, April 15, 2008 | The recent Olympic torch protests in Europe and San Francisco reminded me of John Azevedo and the utter disappointment athletes must live with when politics robs them of their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Azevedo is the wrestling coach at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, but he should be better known as an Olympic wrestler — maybe even as an Olympic medalist.

President Jimmy Carter, though, following bad advice that started with a New York Times sportswriter, decided the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

The decision turned the careers of Azevedo and most of the U.S. Olympic Class of 1980 into a footnote rather than a lifetime dream-come-true.

I had a chance to talk to Azevedo after the 2000 U.S. Olympic wrestling team trials in Dallas when we were seated together on a hotel shuttle from the hotel to the airport.

First we recapped how San Diegan Quincey Clark, a Lincoln High alum, made his dream come true by winning his weight class to make the U.S. Olympic team. We also talked about the disappointment Stephen Neal, a San Diego High alum, must have felt after he lost in the heavyweight final.

Who knew at the time Neal would assuage his loss by going on to win three Super Bowl rings (and counting?) with the New England Patriots as an offensive lineman.

Then I asked Azevedo about the 1980 boycott: Does he still think about it?

“Every day,” he said with a glum expression, staring straight ahead.

Remember, this was a conversation taking place 20 years after the fact.

The Olympics are only once every four years, so for some athletes, such as Azevedo, their window closed with the boycott. It was the time when they were at the peak of their athletic ability.

But even athletes so dominant they competed in future Olympics paid a price for the 1980 boycott.

Steve Scott, now the track and field and cross country coach at Cal State San Marcos, is known by those who love the sport as America’s greatest miler. His stature is hard to dispute, but without an Olympic medal on his resume, he’s overlooked by the average American sports fan.

When I interviewed Scott before he was inducted last month into the Bretibard Hall of Fame at the Hall of Champions (my day job), I asked him about not bringing home an Olympic medal.

Most people know Scott from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, when he was 10th in the 1,500 meters, the metric mile, and the 1988 Games in Seoul, when he was fifth.

But he made his first Olympic team in 1980.

“I feel not getting a medal in the 1984 Olympics was more due to missing the 1980 Olympics,” Scott said. “I was young and up and coming in 1980, so there were no expectations. The 1980 Olympics should have been my time to take my lumps. You’re intimidated in your first Olympics.”

By the 1984 Olympics, Scott was one of the favorites in a golden era for the mile after he won a silver medal in the 1983 World Championships. But he admits he didn’t cope with the pressure well.

“In 1984, I got overwhelmed by the pressure and expectations in my first Olympics,” said Scott, who grew up in Upland near L.A. and was an NCAA champion at UC Irvine. “I was running in basically my hometown and I had won the silver at the World Championships. I basically let the pressure get to me.”

In 1988, Scott placed fifth in Olympics, although it was a photo finish for the top five.

Scott’s time was 3 minutes, 36.99 seconds. He was only 0.78 behind Eastern German bronze medalist Jens-Peter Herold, 0.84 behind Great Britain silver medalist Steve Cram and 1.03 behind Kenyan gold medalist Peter Rono.

“By 1988, I was slightly on the downside hump of my best years as a miler,” said Scott, who had turned 33. “What hurt me was the schedule. We had to run three races in three days. I wasn’t at my best for the final, but I only missed the gold by a second and silver and bronze by less.”

In many ways, Scott paid an unfair price for the 1980 Olympics similar to one-time Olympians.

A 1980 boycott was first suggested by the late Red Smith, a Pulitzer Prize sports columnist for the New York Times. The idea quickly gained momentum around the country and Carter acted on it.

But as we know now, “Charlie Wilson’s War,” the covert operations in Afghanistan pushed by the Texas Congressman, had far more to do with bringing down the Soviet empire than turning athletes into political pawns.

Now the 2008 Beijing Games are here. A boycott is pointless but still discussed. China must improve its record on human rights, of course, but bringing the world and the Olympics to China will do more to opening its society than boycotting the Games.

If you’ve been to China, you know it is an increasingly capitalistic country. Beijing and Shanghei bustle and light up like Hong Kong or Tokyo. Capitalism is what puts pressure on the Chinese government to relax its controls.

Only the athletes will pay the price anytime politics mixes with sports.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org‘s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions and an occasional writer for Chargers.com. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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