NBC Recalls Moscow Olympic Boycott
For every athlete adversely affected by the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, there was an NBC Sports employee with a similarly shattered dream.
“It’s history and you can’t change it,” track and field announcer Charlie Jones said. “All you can do is cry in the dark.”
Those who remain at the network have vivid memories of the spring of 1980.
“I remember the day the boycott became official,” said Terry Ewert, then an associate producer. “I was with Bryant Gumbel at the ski jump at Lake Placid doing a pre-Olympic piece. We had heard preliminary reports on the radio that things were looking bad.
“They were going to make me a producer. It was a very dismal day in Lake Placid. The boycott was a blow. The Moscow Olympics were the reason I was hired by NBC. I thought my career was not going to go anywhere. It was disappointing because we had worked so hard for two years.”
Ewert, who was to have produced the late-night segments of NBC’s coverage, is the coordinating producer for the network’s Olympic programming from Seoul, South Korea. His career certainly did not end in 1980; he has received two Emmy Awards for his work at NBC.
“Late-night was to be entirely on tape, so they wanted to throw some entertainment elements into it,” remembers Ewert. “David Letterman was going to host. About the time of the boycott, I was planning a trip out to the West Coast to meet with him. To this day, I have never spoken with David Letterman.”
Among those who were to have prominent roles in the Moscow coverage were Gumbel, Letterman, Bruce Jenner, Donna DeVarona, O.J. Simpson and Joe Garagiola.
“Bryant has an old photo of all the 1980 hosts,” Ewert said. “It’s interesting to see the faces and think about how all the careers have changed.”
Michael Weisman, the executive producer of NBC Sports, was to produce track and field and the opening ceremonies in 1980.
“My wife and I planned a child around Moscow,” Weisman said when asked to reflect on the boycott led by the United States and supported by 54 nations. “We got married in December of 1978. We did not want Carol to give birth during the Games, so when I got back, she’d say, ‘Here’s your child. She’s a month and a half old.’ My daughter, Brett, was born in April. After all of the professional disappointment, it was ironic that I was able to spend time at home with our baby.”
Weisman remembers the office reaction when the boycott became official in the spring of 1980.
“There was a mixture of disappointment and some relief,” Weisman said. “Don Ohlmeyer (then executive producer) was one of the few people who had Olympic experience. Frankly, several of us were concerned about going to Moscow, afraid of plugs being pulled and wondering if we could get out safely. Some were personally relieved they wouldn’t have to be behind the Iron Curtain.
“A lot of people were giving up secure jobs in television to work for NBC during the Olympics. There were no guarantees, no opportunity for work with the network after the Games. There were a lot of personal sacrifices. There were production people who didn’t have glamorous jobs. Their feelings were similar to the athletes, although the losses were not as dramatic.”
Charlie Jones was to have worked track and field at Lenin Stadium in Moscow. He will be get his chance at Seoul.
“It was really disappointing,” he said. “It would’ve been a great moment, probably the number one highlight of my career. Probably because of Moscow, I am looking forward to Seoul more than anybody.
“It’s a chance to be highly visible for a concentrated two-week period. Don Ohlmeyer said everyone was disappointed, but the real impact was to the announcers who were denied prime time, day-by-day coverage by 100 million people.”
Ewert agreed the boycott makes working on the 1988 Seoul Games all the sweeter.
“I feel like it gave us seven more years of preparation to do the 1980 Olympics,” he said. “We’re much stronger and a bigger department now, although that’s not to say we wouldn’t have been successful then. I’ll certainly smile during the Opening Ceremonies. It will be the culmination of the dream to work on the Olympics.
“All of us went into this project thinking Seoul could be another Moscow (because of the frequent unrest in South Korea). But the first few times I went to Seoul and saw how dedicated the people were, I knew that wouldn’t happen. You plan for the worst, you can’t hope for the worst.”
Of the estimated 1,100 people who will work for NBC in Seoul, Weisman said about 25% were involved in the network’s coverage in 1980.
“In the back of our minds, those of us who lived in 1980 are looking forward to the Opening Ceremonies,” he said. “We suffered the loss then. In this world, you keep your fingers crossed. When those ceremonies happen, the biggest smiles you will see will be on our faces. A lot of us will be flashing back.”