March 2020

Stephanie Hightower knows pain of Olympic dream denied

Via The Columbus Dispatch


Tokyo is on the clock, and if the ticking sounds like a time bomb it is because the 2020 Summer Olympics are close to exploding.

I say blow them up for a year not only for health reasons but because the competitive integrity of the Games is in jeopardy. Many of the best athletes won’t perform at their peak because training is being limited by the coronavirus that has caused the suspension and cancellation of almost all sports, and, therefore, key training opportunities. Until COVID-19 dissipates, which might not be for several more months, many Olympic hopefuls will be a step behind.

Move the Olympics a year later. But don’t cancel them. The Games must go on, but not until the summer of 2021.

Tokyo Olympic organizers, take heed. If the virus hangs around as expected and you opt to hold the Games as scheduled July 24 to Aug. 9 some athletes will refuse to attend, which would further dilute the competition. In essence, athletes would boycott the Games, and we’ve been down that road.

Former Ohio State hurdler Stephanie Hightower qualified for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, but years of training turned to ash when President Jimmy Carter ordered the boycott of the Games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The U.S. was one of 65 countries to boycott, while 80 participated.

Hightower, who was favored to medal in the 100-meter hurdles, was devastated by Carter’s decision. The pain remains, even if time has eased her anger.

“I still have PTSD and they’re going to have it, too,” Hightower said, reacting to the NCAA’s decision to cancel winter and spring sports championships. Many schools have canceled spring sports entirely. “I’m heartbroken for them, because you don’t get it back. It’s 40 years later for me and you just don’t get it back.”

Hightower’s faith pulled her through the tough times and taught her that finger pointing hurts mostly the one doing the pointing. But it still took years to come to terms with missing out on a chance to medal.

“At that moment in time you can’t begin to understand it,” she said, addressing the disappointment of high school and college seniors whose winter seasons were cut short and spring seasons are in jeopardy. “Especially if you’re 17, 18 or 19. I didn’t understand it at 21 years old.”

Salt in the wound. Hightower placed fourth in the 100 hurdles at the 1984 Olympic trials, one spot short of qualifying for the Los Angeles Games. Her dreams destroyed first by politics and then by a photo finish.

Four decades later and current events are pressing against scar tissue. It hurts, but Hightower aches more for today’s Olympic hopefuls, knowing what may be coming and worried about what may not be adequate training opportunities.

“The real question now is what is the (United States Olympic Committee) going to be doing, and what are the international governing bodies going to be doing, to see that these young people in track and field and swimming and gymnastics … can continue to train,” said Hightower, who served as president of USA Track & Field from 2008 to 2016.

The likely answer is “not enough.” College sports are at a standstill, which makes it challenging for universities to provide training resources. Many athletes must fend for themselves, not a recipe for Olympic success, which is why the Games should be postponed a year. Otherwise, athletes face similar wishful thinking to what Hightower experienced in 1980.

“We kept our fingers crossed until the last day (before the boycott took effect),” she said.

Fingers also are crossed that COVID-19 runs its course sooner than later.

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