Tallinn in Estonia was the sailing venue for the 1980 Olympic Games. It is often remembered for the wrong reasons. The United States led boycott, in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, denied many of the world's best sailors the chance to compete for an Olympic medal. It is still an emotive subject for some of those affected.
Now, 33 years later the memories are flooding back for some of those Finn sailors who were denied the chance to compete at the Moscow Olympics. They are in Tallinn for the 2013 Finn Gold Cup, some as coaches, and one even as a sailor. In 1980 John Bertrand (USA) and Larry Lemieux (CAN) were among the best Finn sailors in the world. Gus Miller (USA) also remembers the times and the impact the boycott had on the sailors and Finn sailing in the United States.
The 2013 Finn Gold Cup is being sailed from the same venue at Pirita where the 1980 Olympics was staged. Each day there is a reminder of the history of that year as the sailors pass the Olympic rings at the harbour entrance and the Olympic flame cauldron where those who were allowed to compete are remembered with a plaque of the gold medal winners. Both are showing signs of age, a poignant reminder of a long gone Soviet era for the country.
More than three decades on, the sailors have been remembering that time of their lives and reflecting on what might have been if politics had been kept away from sport.
John Bertrand, who is coaching the Australians in Tallinn said, “I hadn't really thought about it much until I got here this year. I was expecting to go to the Olympics in 1980. I had been here two years prior in 1978 and 1979 for the Pre-Olympic regattas and I did quite well. In 1979 I won and in 1978 I think I was first or second. So I was really looking forward to coming to the Olympics here. We were at the Gold Cup in Takapuna when our President announced that we were boycotting the summer Olympics, so that was a bit of a shock.”
“We went ahead with our trials in Newport, Rhode Island and I ended up winning the trials and then we came to Europe. The Europeans were in Helsinki, literally the week before everyone was allowed to come over here for the Olympics. I really tried to win those and I got a second behind Chris Law (GBR). Then we got to go to Kiel while everyone else (the non-boycotting countries) went over to the Olympics. We had no choice. We were forbidden to go to the Olympics.”
Bertrand is still enamoured with Tallinn. “I really love Tallinn for obvious reasons. It's a great place to sail, and the Estonian people are wonderful. In 1979 I was asked to be interviewed by TASS, which was the Russian news organisation. Back then I was so focussed before regattas that I didn't really give interviews, so I turned them down and when the local Estonian people heard that, I became a folk hero to them. That's when I first realised there was this situation with the Estonians and the Russians.”
How did he react to not being able to sail at the Olympics. “After 1980 I went into America's Cup racing and eight months before the 1984 Olympics I decided to hop back in the Finn and give it a go. So I had a four year effort leading up to 1980 and an eight month effort leading up to 1984.” In 1984 Bertrand won the silver medal.
“It's absolutely great to be back here in the capacity as a coach and seeing the conditions out there. I really enjoyed sailing in these conditions. I don't know how it was during the Olympics but my expectation if I had sailed in 1980 was to win. Coming back has been really nice and it's been an opportunity to maybe close that chapter, though I hadn't really thought much about it until now.”
It would be natural if he was still bitter about the whole event, but the truth is not so simple. “What I am bitter about is that sports was just offered up as the very first reaction by the Jimmy Carter administration and if it would have been parcelled with a number of other measures that they might have taken. I wouldn't have been so bitter, but it so wasn't the right thing to do. And there are a couple of ironies. One is that people don’t even remember that is was over Russia invading Afghanistan. That's a bit of irony. And the other irony is the situation in the world today over Syria, with Russia and the United States seeming to be on the opposite side of that political situation. Interesting times I guess and things have gone full circle.”
Bertrand had already experienced a Communist controlled country when he sailed the East German Championships in Warnemünde, and his previous trips to Tallinn. “Tallinn has changed so much since then. It was very intimidating to be here as a Westerner at that time, very controlled. The town was very grey, not many people were smiling. The Soviets were paranoid in terms of everything we did and were allowed to do. But you could tell from the Estonian people just how genuine and friendly and nice they were. Gus Miller has a great connection here and that all started when we came in 1978. And so I've always thought of Estonia as a really nice place and now I've had the opportunity to come back I'm really grateful for that.”
There is a certain circularity to this whole story. The last Finn Gold Cup before the 1980 Olympics was in Takapuna, New Zealand. Earlier this week in Tallinn the class voted to return to Takapuna for its first Finn Gold Cup there since 1980. Larry Lemieux, coaching the North Americans in Tallinn this week, figured highly in 1980. “Back in 1980 we had a seven race series, and after the fifth race you had a lay day. I was doing really well and got third overall and it was two Americans, Cam Lewis and John Bertrand who beat me overall. Assuming we had gone to the Olympics in 1980 there would only have been one American there and the rest of the world. You never know what's going to happen at an event, but now we are in Tallinn, and I see the conditions it would have suited me quite well with moderate winds. So far we haven’t seen any big blows, and the mid range winds was where I felt really confident.”
“At the time propaganda influences the way you think of things and I thought that the Russians were evil and that how else can you possibly send the people of Russia a message. Not going to the Olympics would be a way to send a message that what they were doing is wrong, but now when I look at it in hindsight, it was just propaganda. The world boycotted because they invaded Afghanistan and what's the world doing now, invading Afghanistan.”
“We never had a choice about it. We were just told we were not going. At the time I always named my boats after songs and that year there was a Jerry Jeff Walker song called 'Just pissing in the wind', so I named my boat after that, which is basically what we did for four years. All that training and then nothing.”
“It really shows how silly that whole thing was. I don't think sports should be used as a political tool. We are seeing a little bit of that now with this controversy of Russian and their policy against gays, but I think the gay community is quite right in saying that they are going there to perform anyway and show the world what they can do instead of saying they're going to boycott because a boycott doesn't really do anything. You're better off going to perform to show what you can do. So if I can relate that to 1980 it might have been the same. If the Western world had gone to the Games and completely dominated all the events, that would also send a message and it keeps the politics out of sport, which I think is probably a pretty good thing to do.”
Is he bitter about the missed opportunities? “Yes and no. I think so. I think partly I agreed with it at the time because I was so ignorant. I was just a young kid, but in hindsight it was complete bull. So, yes I suppose I am. In the Olympics your window of opportunity to win a medal is not that big in a sport that is athletic. So that would have probably been one of my best opportunities to win a medal had I have gone.”
“In 1984 I ended up screwing up the Finn trials and went in the Star boat. After that you are starting to get to old. In 1988 I was in the Finn again. After 1980 I just kept plugging away. That's probably why I don't sail much now. I just did it for too many years. I did that campaign leading up to 1980, then 1984 and 1988 and to 1992. After 1992, I said I have had enough. It was a long time.”
“But I am really pleased to be here after so long. Now I see what the conditions are like here and everything else, it would have been great.
Gus Miller remembers, “John Bertrand won the Pre-Olympics here in 1978. Stewart Neff was second and I was third. We had a really strong team in the US. Cam Lewis was also here but he was goofing off. In 1979 I think Bertrand won it again, but Carl Buchan and others were using the Tallinn boatyard Finns and they were definitely inferior and I and others were using charter boats that were sinking. We'd get great starts and be out in front and then the boat would start sinking. So we'd go slower and slower.”
“For the US trials in 1980 before the boycott, the Europeans were going to charter a plane to come over and watch the US trials as there were any of eight guys who could win it, and they thought that it would be the Finn race of the year. Cam Lewis won the Gold Cup in 1979 in Weymouth and won it again in New Zealand in 1980 in strong winds. Carl Buchan was an absolutely superb sailor. In the US there was a training group that included Lewis, Neff, Andy Menkart, Buzz Reynolds and Alex Smigelski, that was powerful.”
“When Carter declared the boycott most of them put their boats away, but when they announced they were going to have a trials as a booby prize, some guys decided to come to it but the only guy that continued practising the whole time was Bertrand. I think Buchan found his boat somewhere and the others just grabbed their boats out of the weeds and showed up in Newport for the pseudo trials.”
“At the end I felt that Menkart was sailing better than Bertrand and it wasn't decided until the last beat of the last race between Menkart and Bertrand. Bertrand was a good sailor and was the first of the professional sailors, but he was never part of the group out of Fort Lauderdale. Sailing out of the Fort Lauderdale club all through the winter really developed that group and what the Europeans said was distinctive about that group was that they had developed a whole new way of sailing the boat and it took the Europeans a couple of years to finally catch them up. The boycott killed that powerhouse American Finn group.”
In 1980 the USA was dominant in the Finn class. They had dominated the past three Finn Gold Cups.“There was no question that whoever it was, an American was going to get the gold in 1980. And get it by a big distance. There was no one close to them. If that had happened and the US had a gold medal, which it has never had in the Finn class, then I think that would have drawn more guys into it and we wouldn't have had the situation that followed on later where the US decided to get rid of the Finn and bring in the Laser to gain favour with the small countries. So lots of guys just didn't bother to start sailing Finns.”
Miller has strong feelings about the implications that the 1980 boycott brought about. “Interestingly, the boycott was a strategic blunder on Carter's part because the Olympics brought lots of foreigners into the Soviet Union, which was otherwise prohibitive. All those guys coming into Moscow, and here in Tallinn, formed friendships with the Russians and the Estonians that produced all kinds of relationships and stories about those relationships. There were marriages and other things that came out of the Pre-Olympics. Those stories spread across the Soviet Union and that was precisely the kind of thing that the Soviet Union didn't want to have happen. So you could make the case that Glasnost and Perestroika would have happened four or five years earlier than it did if there hadn't been a boycott.”
To complete the circle, the gold medalist in the Finn class from the 1980 Olympics, Esko Rechardt (FIN) will be presenting the prizes and the Finn Gold Cup to the 2013 Finn World Champion in Saturday's closing ceremony here at Pirita, in Tallinn.