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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Soviet Bloc Tit-for-Tat Sank L.A.

Of the record 83 gold medals won by the U.S. team that hosted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, many came at the expense of Soviet-bloc countries that boycotted the Games.


The absence of the best athletes from most communist nations, with the exception of Romania and China, was a retaliation for a similar American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.


In both cases, the athletes became victims of politics.


"They [political leaders] used us as pawns in their game," said Vladimir Salnikov, the Soviet swimmer who won two gold medals at the 1980 Games and another, eight years later, during the Seoul Olympics.


"I was shocked when I heard about the boycott" about a month before he was scheduled to leave for Los Angeles, he recalled. "I felt emptiness inside me."


"We had our last pre-Olympic training camp in East Germany," he said recently. "My first desire was to quit but after I thought about it, I realized that would only made me feel even worse. And I kept training more intensely than ever before so I could not think of anything else."


Salnikov, the world record holder at the time in the 400- and 1,500-meter freestyle events, and undefeated at those distances since 1978, had a great chance to repeat his 1980 Olympic feat by winning both events if not for the boycott.


Mikhail Mamiashvili, who at 21 won the Greco-Roman wrestling championship in the 74 kilogram weight-class in 1983, was another victim of the boycott.


"The boycott devastated me," he said. "I was young and knew that I'd get another chance but some of my older teammates, like Benur Pashayan and Kamil Fatkullin, were totally wiped out."


Like Salnikov, Mamiashvili came back to win a gold medal in 1988 in Seoul.


As compensation for missed Olympic opportunities, the Soviets came up with the idea of an alternate Olympics, the "Friendship Games" held in Moscow in the summer of 1984.


"I was first in the 400- and 1,500-meter races in Moscow and my times in both events were faster than those who won in Los Angeles," said Salnikov. "But it was only a moral victory because those guys got the Olympic medals and I didn't."


Nevertheless, the Soviet sports officials were eager to call the 1984 Moscow winners as "unofficial Olympic champions," at least until 1988.


"After I won in Seoul, there was a rumor that each athlete who won two Olympic gold medals would get the highest Soviet honor, the Lenin Order," Mamiashvili said. "But they didn't"


In Salnikov's case, the missed opportunity in 1984 was a blessing in disguise.


"If I had won in Los Angeles I probably would have retired soon thereafter," the swimmer said. "But I stayed in the sport and won in 1988 when almost everyone had given up on me."


His unprecedented win in the 1,500 meters, the longest and most difficult distance in swimming, at the age of 27 brought Salnikov acclaim and admiration worldwide.


Nor, he said, does he have any regrets about the 1984 boycott any more.


"After a while, I've put it behind me and don't want to look back," he said.