Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Canada honours its 1980 Olympic swim team

Swimming Canada honoured our 1980 Olympic swim team at a ceremony during Saturday's Canadian Olympic Swimming Trials in Montreal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Ryan Remiorz/CP

Thirty-two years after a boycott benched them for the Olympic Games, Canada's 1980 swim team was honoured Saturday at the trials in Montreal.

Swimming Canada brought together 25 team members who earned the right to race for Canada in Moscow, but were not allowed to do so by their government.

The U.S. led a walkout of the Summer Games in Moscow after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 27, 1979. Canada officially joined the boycott April 22, 1980.

Story continues below advertisement

Unlike the over 700 swimmers currently competing at trials for London this summer, the swimmers of 1980 saw their season end with trials.

Peter Szmidt set a world record at those trials in the men's 400-metre freestyle in a time of three minutes 50.49 seconds. The record stood for 18 months.

Szmidt's time was not beaten in Moscow by Olympic champion Vladimir Salnikov.

"All year, I was thinking about that time," Szmidt said Saturday. "I knew if I got the time, the medal would be there. I'm very fortunate I had that because that time couldn't be taken away from me in my head like a medal could be."

Szmidt, now 50, doesn't know if he would have won the gold in Moscow.

"I would never say it was mine," Szmidt said. "You have to go there and earn it. The Olympics is a pressure-cooker. Who knows what can happen in the Olympics? I would like to think it would have been me, but you never know."

Graham Smith had dominated the Commonwealth Games in 1978 with a record six gold medals. Smith also won a gold and silver medal in the world championships the same year.

Story continues below advertisement

Smith took a year off school to prepare for Moscow. He was primed for a big Games and his swimming career's finale.

"I was ranked in the top five in the world in my events and was really focused," Smith said. "The person that won the 100 breaststroke gold medal in Moscow, I had beaten him at the Commonwealth Games two years earlier."

Boycotting Moscow Games has been acknowledged as a mistake and ineffectual as a political tool.

The Soviet Union didn't leave Afghanistan until nine years later. The Soviets also led a retaliatory boycott by Eastern Bloc countries of the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

"The boycott was a difficult situation and a very bad idea. Frankly the only solace coming out of it, is that it's never happened again," said Dan Thompson, whose one shot at swimming in the Olympics was 1980. "I think we've learned a lesson from it.

Szmidt, Smith and Thompson are one of several athletes featured in a new book "Shattered Hopes: Canada's Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games" by Sheila Hurtig Robertson.

Story continues below advertisement

The book includes athletes, coaches and decision-makers across several sports recounting their experiences in 1980. The swim team was poised to bring home multiple medals from Moscow.

"This team is part of Canadian swimming's history, a story that really hasn't been told or really didn't get a chance to unfold," Thompson said.

The 1980 swim team was introduced at Olympic Park Pool. They paraded past the new crop of Olympic hopefuls and high-fived them.

"It's a thank you more than anything else," Swimming Canada chief executive officer Pierre Lafontaine said.

"These people got short-changed by decisions that were not in their hands and some of them have walked away from the sport quite bitter and it's unfair because they were great Canadians."

When Canada announced it would join the boycott, Smith was training in Nashville, B.C., and was playing catch in the backyard of a house when the phone rang. It was a reporter breaking the news and asking for comment.

"We went to practice later and my coach almost had to throw me in," Smith recalled. "I didn't want to get in the water. It's the first time ever in my career I didn't want to get in the water to train. There was that much turmoil for me."

Thompson, a butterfly specialist, was driving to swim practice in Toronto when he heard on the radio that he would not be swimming in the Olympics.

"We knew this was coming, but it was the moment when you finally realize it was over," Thompson said. "That workout was just a shattering experience. We were numb to it all and went through the motions."

Thompson wasn't able to try again in 1984 because of a shoulder injury.

Wendy Quirk, now Johnson, was anticipating her second Olympic Games after racing in Montreal in 1976. She was training with her club team in Edmonton when the news broke.

"Several of my teammates quit that day," Johnson recalled.

The swim team's trials went ahead in July just days before the Games opened in Moscow. Swimmers arrived at the Etobicoke Olympium Pool in Toronto feeling a myriad of emotions.

"It was a very stressful time and a very conflicting time because your dreams had been shattered, but you still needed to make the team," Thompson said.

"You really needed to concentrate and focus. I'm so glad I stayed focused and made the team. I won. I didn't swim terribly great but I won and that was the most important thing."

Anne Merklinger recalls those trials with regret and not just because of the boycott. Merklinger is currently head of Own The Podium, making her one of the most powerful people in sport in Canada.

Then, she was a U.S. college swimmer who arrived at trials unprepared. She was third in the 200-metre breaststroke and needed to be second in order to stand on the deck with the rest of the 1980 team Saturday.

"Anyone else who was in a club environment up here in Canada, they were still determined to make the team," Merklinger recalled. "We weren't really in the loop. We were so far removed from what was happening."

"We were so isolated, we thought 'oh well, why bother training? We're done. Let's just go through the motions.'

"I wouldn't regret it if I'd done everything possible in terms of training, gone to the trials and finished third, but I didn't. I don't think I reached my potential as a swimmer."

Thompson recalled the atmosphere was electric when Szmidt set the world record.

"I think we have another Olympic gold medal with us," he said. "We just can't celebrate it."

Although swimmer Alex Baumann, Victor Davis and Anne Ottenbrite won gold medals in Los Angeles, Merklinger is convinced the 1980 team would have produced even more medals.

"We were ready to swim fast," Johnson agreed.

Johnson is at this year's trials coaching Calgary Cascade Swim Club athletes. Thompson served as President of Swim Canada from 2005 to 2009. He's now head of Canadian Tire Jumpstart Charities. Szmidt is a special projects manager for Imperial Oil.

Smith, 53, recently moved from the United States to the Vancouver area and works in sales management.

"I suppressed a lot of my emotions and put them away," he said. "When Sheila interviewed me, different conflicting feelings crept up. Was it the right decision at the time? Second-guessing and everything.

"It's great that Swimming Canada has brought the 1980 team here to recognize it and celebrate it."

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.