By LICIA CORBELLA -- Calgary Sun
"Like a death."
That's how Diane Jones Konihowski describes Canada's boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow.
For her and dozens of other Canadian athletes, the boycott that Canada participated in to protest the Soviet Union's Dec. 26, 1979 invasion of Afghanistan -- left a void in her life -- similar to that left by the loss of a loved one.
It's as if a large chunk of her life remains unfinished and, more significantly, unfinishable.
For Diane Jones Konihowski, the Moscow Olympics were going to be the pinnacle of her athletic career.
She had trained five to six hours a day, six days a week for 16 years up until that point and was planning to go for broke and gold in the pentathlon -- a mixed event consisting of the 100-metre hurdles, the shot put, the high jump, the long jump and an 800-metre run.
She had pictured it all in her mind many times -- standing on the highest podium with the gold medal around her neck, the Canadian flag in the position of honour and O Canada playing over the loud speaker in front of a crowd of tens of thousands. It would be the "icing on the cake" and a natural and perfect conclusion to a long and illustrious athletic career.
"I was favoured to win a medal in Moscow," says Jones Konihowski, the gold medallist at the 1979 Pan American Games.
"I was ranked number two in the world that year.
"I beat all the Olympic medallists two weeks after the games in Detmold, Germany. And I won the alternate Olympics in Philadelphia. I beat the two top medallists in my event two weeks after the games, so who knows how it would have turned out?"
Phrases like 'who knows,' `what if' and `maybe' are words one hears repeatedly when speaking to virtually anyone who hoped to medal at the 1980 Olympics.
Even though 20 years have passed and Jones Konihowski is a 49-year-old mother of two girls, the vice-president of marketing for the National Sport Centre Calgary, a member of the Canadian Olympic Association and the chef-de-mission in Sydney for the Canadian Olympic team, she says she always feels a little pang of what? Longing, regret, emptiness? She's not quite sure -- it's just there, a feeling at the pit of her stomach that lies dormant most of the time, but awakens every four years when another summer Olympic Games comes around.
"I just know I was in the best shape of my life. I moved down to New Zealand in December along with my coach, Lyle Sanderson, his family and my family. We just wanted to move away from it all and focus, focus, focus. I was ready to go and then I got the call on April 23 (April 22 in Canada) from Corey Elliott, from CFRN radio in Edmonton."
It was morning and she was halfway out the front door to head to the track when the phone rang.
"The phone hardly ever rang for us in New Zealand," recalls Jones Konihowski with a chuckle. "The people who knew us there were people we trained with, so we saw them every day anyway. I thought something terrible had happened to someone back home."
So when she heard the voice of Elliott, Jones Konihowski says she initially felt some relief.
That, however, didn't last for long.
"He asked me: 'What do you think of the decision?'
"I said: 'What decision?'
"There was some silence on the line and then he said: 'Canada is boycotting the Games.'
"It felt like I'd been kicked in the gut," she says, as she covers her toned tummy with her hands.
"So I spent the next couple of minutes trying to get through my shock, articulate my disbelief and my fundamental disagreement with it," she says.
"I vehemently didn't agree with it -- still don't -- that got out over the news wires and for the next two or three days I was barraged by practically every media outlet in Canada interviewing me."
Her comments back then were simple and bold. The Olympics, she said, should not be used as a political tool. They should be used as a tool for peace.
She also openly toyed with the idea of scraping some money together and attending the Games as an individual.
Many Canadians, however, vowed that they would prevent her from going, even if they had to kill her.
Jones Konihowski's husband, John Konihowski, was a wide receiver with the Edmonton Eskimos at the time.
"After all the media attention I was told that the (Edmonton Eskimos') switchboard was lit up for days by people calling and demanding that I be fired for being married to a communist," recalls John. "It was really, really ugly.
"I remember going out on the field at the start of some games and people in the stands yelling: 'Go home communist lover.' "
Konihowski says "Jonesy," as he calls his wife of 23 years, was receiving death threats in the mail. Hate-filled, anonymous missives compiled by clipped-out letters from newspapers -- just like you see in Hollywood movies.
"I never let Diane see any of the letters because I thought she already had enough to deal with, I mean she was absolutely devastated by the boycott; it really broke her heart," says Konihowski from the family's flower-filled yard in Calgary.
Besides the threats, Jones Konihowski says her sponsor, a wealthy and "wonderful" Toronto businessman, called her with an ultimatum.
"He said: 'Diane, unless you retract what you're saying, I have to relinquish my sponsorship.'
"I said: 'That's fine, I understand.'"
And so on top of the death threats, the disappointment and the loss of her dream, Jones Konihowski also lost much of her funding.
"It was a really interesting time. Canadians are normally so apathetic, so all of this passion and vitriol really threw me for a loop," she declares with a hearty laugh. But then her face darkens.
"It was a really horrible time, not just because my dream had been taken away, but because of what people were saying about me."
About six weeks after Canada officially boycotted the Olympics, a COA member called Jones Konihowski and told her she had been invited to compete at the Games by the Soviet Union's organizing committee.
Jones Konihowski thought about the invitation for a long time.
"I turned it down because I really feared for the safety of my family and my grandma. So I turned it down, but now I regret it. I should have gone. Of course it's easy to say that now with all of the emotion and pressure stripped away, but that's my biggest regret."
Even the media, which had grown accustomed to referring to Jones Konihowski as Canada's golden girl, joined in the strident criticism.
George Gross, the Toronto Sun's sports editor at the time and a good friend of both Diane and John, wrote several columns saying that Jones Konihowski's position was wrong and that she was a fool.
"George was a good friend," says Jones Konihowski. "And he wrote this column that really hurt me. I remember the headline was, 'Diane puts foot in mouth.'
"But I knew he came from Hungary, so I could understand his passionate dislike for the Soviet Union and that's why I never held it against him; it was just a very emotional, emotional time."
Twenty years later, Gross says the world is a vastly different place. The Soviet Union no longer exists, the iron curtain is down, the Russians pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989 and the figurative clock once used to measure how close the world was to nuclear annihilation -- and which was said to be at three minutes to midnight in 1980 -- is never mentioned anymore.
"Well, hindsight is a wonderful thing," Gross says with a chuckle.
At the time, however, Gross' opinion was not made lightly since he had a lot riding on the Moscow Olympics.
His son, George Jr. -- a member of Canada's Olympic waterpolo team in 1976 and 1984 -- lost out on attending the 1980 Olympic Games because of the boycott.
"If I knew then what I know now, maybe I was wrong -- maybe the games should have been left alone, but at the time I was really convinced that it was the right decision," Gross says. "It just seemed as if it would have been unconscionable for our athletes to be participating in Moscow, while at the same time Afghanis were being slaughtered and their right to self-determination had been crushed."
Of all of Canada's athletes, Jones Konihowski suffered the brunt of Canadians' anti-Soviet sentiments.
She learned later on in May, upon returning to Canada, that the reason the anger was largely directed at her was because she was one of the first and only Canadian athletes toying with the idea of attending the Games as an independent athlete.
Perhaps her bold comments could be attributed to her isolation in New Zealand, to being away from the almost daily discussions in Parliament and in the papers about the very real possibility that Canada would boycott the games. Jones Konihowski, however, thinks it's because she wasn't at home listening to all of the propaganda.
"I was so strident in my opinions because I hadn't been brainwashed," she says, matter-of-factly.
When Joe Clark was Prime Minister during his six-month hiccup of power -- he indicated that Canada would more than likely boycott the Games if the Soviets didn't pull out of Afghanistan by Feb. 20. -- the date set by U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
But every foreign leader knew -- even as the one-month-long U.S. ultimatum was set on Jan. 20 -- the Soviets had no intention of retreating. On the contrary, they kept sending more troops into Afghanistan on a daily basis.
Clark admits now that his government's decision to boycott the games had been made long before that deadline approached. He also planned to do everything he could to stop qualified Canadian athletes from making the trip to Moscow to compete as individuals under the Olympic flag.
"We can withdraw Canadian financial support and we can bring other pressures to bear that could convince Canadian athletes to stay home," he said then.
While Clark's resolve to enact a full boycott was strong, he was not unsympathetic to the plight of the athletes. He tried to find solutions that would have eased their pain. He said that if the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to move the Games, Canada would offer to host them -- likely in Montreal -- the site of the 1976 summer Olympics.
But that plan was quickly shot down by the IOC president at the time, Ireland's Lord Michael Killanin, who called such a move "physically impossible."
In the meantime, while he was leader of the official Opposition Liberal Party, Pierre Trudeau made it clear that if he should form the next government, Canadian Olympians would arrive in Moscow on schedule.
"If we want to attack the Soviet Union, we need a global policy, much more general," he said. "We won't twist the Soviet bear's tail with the Olympic Games."
Because of comments like those, Canadian athletes still dreaming of competing in Moscow, had their hopes raised when on Feb. 18 -- two days prior to the arbitrary one-month deadline set by President Jimmy Carter for the Soviets to pull out of Afghanistan -- Clark and his Tories were ousted from government and Trudeau and the Liberals were swept back in.
But by April 22, Trudeau's promise to send a national team to the Olympics was abandoned. Foreign Affairs Minister Mark MacGuigan announced in the House of Commons that a Canadian boycott of the Games would be "the clearest and most effective way" to protest the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan.
Canadian athletes felt betrayed, but not surprised. Some 50 U.S. allies had already joined the boycott by that time and, in the end, 62 countries -- including West Germany, Japan and China -- would join.
Clark, to this day, believes Canada's decision to boycott the Olympics was the right one and may have played some part in bringing down the iron curtain.
"Back then it was easy for authoritarian regimes to hide the consequences of other sanctions from their people," explains Clark.
"If you cut off wheat sales, as we did, they would say, well, there's just a shortage or they'd make some other excuse. But they couldn't hide the absence of prominent countries at their Games because they had been making such an issue of these Games being a sign of the world's respect of the Soviet Union."
Official Soviet propaganda confirms Clark's claim.
An excerpt from the Soviet 1980 handbook for Party Activists states: "The decision to give the honour of holding the Olympic Games in the capital of the world's first Socialist state was convincing testimony to the general recognition of the historic importance and correctness of the foreign policy course of our country, of the enormous services of the Soviet Union in the struggle for peace."
Clark adds that for sanctions to be effective "they have to be seen by the people and these sanctions certainly were seen.
"Virtually everyone in the Soviet Union knew that the world disapproved of their country's invasion of Afghanistan when prominent Olympic countries like Canada and the U.S. weren't there," adds Clark.
Despite Trudeau's broken promise to attend the Games, Jones Konihowski and many other Canadian athletes say they still held out a sliver of hope that the Canadian Olympic Association (COA) would follow the lead set by the British National Olympic Committee, which defied Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's pronouncement that Britain would boycott the Games.
The Olympic committees of Australia and Italy also ended up defying their governments' wishes and sent teams to Moscow, competing under the Olympic flag.
At first, it appeared as though the COA would, like Britain, disregard its government's wishes.
But the COA proved itself as dextrous as Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci when it came to switching positions quickly.
In a statement following a meeting in January, the association's executive committee flatly said: It "does not agree that participation in the Olympic Games in Moscow represents an endorsement of the government of the Soviet Union."
The committee added that it was "very conscious that the only real sacrifice which would be made in the event of a boycott will be by our young athletes. A whole generation of Canadian athletes would lose the opportunity forever to realize the efforts of years of dedication and preparation for the Olympic Games."
Those noble sentiments, however, did not hold.
On April 26, just four days after MacGuigan declared Canada out of the Games, the COA held a heated meeting in Montreal to vote on whether or not to send a team to Moscow. In the end, it wasn't even close. The COA members -- many from sports that had just competed in the 1980 winter Olympics in Lake Placid, voted 137-35 in favour of abiding by the federal government's decision.
Dick Pound, who was president of the COA at the time and is currently vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, remembers those days with much bitterness.
"It was major hypocrisy -- major, major, major," Pound says emphatically from his Montreal law office. "I think Canada's total response outside of the boycott was to cancel one Aeroflot flight per week and to cancel one cultural tour. It was disgusting."
To add insult to the injury inflicted upon Canadian amateur athletes, just six days after announcing that Canada would boycott the Olympics, Trudeau stood up in the House of Commons and cheerily announced that the Soviet national hockey team could still compete in the Canada Cup tournament the following September.
"The position of this government has been not to ban the Olympics or sporting events ... but to ban them because they were being held in Moscow," Trudeau said.
But it was in the area of trade that Canada's true hypocrisy was most evident.
Back in January, Clark's Progressive Conservative government agreed to "limit" wheat sales to the Soviet Union to 3.8 million metric tonnes. What they failed to tell Canadians was that it wasn't much of a limit at all. In fact, it was a 46% increase from 1979.
When the Liberal government came to power in February it stuck to the Tory target and actually exceeded it, selling almost 3.9 million tonnes of wheat to the Soviets in 1980 as well as 1.57 million tonnes of feed barley, compared to 2.6 million tonnes of wheat and 0.872 tonnes of feed barley in 1979.
In dollars, Statistics Canada figures show that, in 1980, Canada exported $1.29-billion worth of cereals to the Soviets compared to just $427 million in 1979.
So while government officials prostituted their principles for votes and revenue, athletes were expected to remain ideologically chaste and make a sacrifice.
Brig.-Gen. Denis Whitaker, chef-de-mission of the Canadian Olympic team for Moscow said: "If giving up the Moscow Games is the only sacrifice the athletes have to make in their lives, they should consider themselves lucky."
When asked to respond to that statement today, Jones Konihowski nods her head. "OK, fair enough. But I gave up my dream and something I worked 16 years for -- what did any other Canadians give up?"
Not much -- if anything. By all accounts Canadian farmers had a banner year, Canadian shippers had a banner year and, with the exception of the odd travel agent specializing on tour packages to Moscow, only Canadian athletes seemed to be the ones who had a bummer year.
Pound says he doubts there would have been a boycott at all had the Olympics not coincided with a presidential election year and if Carter hadn't been so embarrassed by his own bungling of the Iran Hostage Crisis.
Carter knew if other western nations did not join him in his stand against the Soviets he would look the fool and so the pressure he imposed on U.S. allies was reportedly intense.
A previously secret document shows Canada decided to boycott the 1980 Games because the Trudeau government was worried about hurting relations with the U.S.
"It is hard to imagine Canada participating in the Moscow Games if the general judgment of the United States, joined by a significant number of allied and friendly countries, is that the Games should be boycotted," said a cabinet discussion paper dated March 10, 1980.
Whatever the variables that brought about the 1980 boycott, Pound believes the world has tired of Olympic boycotts.
In 1976, the Montreal Olympics were boycotted by 20 African countries to protest New Zealand's participation because their rugby team had been to South Africa.
"That was supposed to hurt New Zealand but it didn't.. It hurt the African athletes," asserts Pound. "Then there was Moscow and that only hurt the western athletes. Then there was the L.A. boycott, that the Soviet's boycotted in a tit-for-tat gesture," recounts Pound, "and again, that only hurt East Bloc athletes.
"As time goes on," says Pound, "political leaders look around and they say: 'No, we're not hurting the target country at all, all we're doing is disemboweling our own youth to no useful effect.' "
But back in 1980, much of the western world believed the boycott was righteous and not a sign of incompetence.
Jones Konihowski, however, held her ground. Three days prior to the July 19 start of the Olympics, boycotted track-and-field athletes kicked off their own international meet at the University of Pennsylvania's Franklin Field.
"I remember. It was tough conditions --44C off the track," recollects Jones Konihowski. "It was hot and humid. I was coming in on the stretch in the last event, the 800 metres, and there was hundreds of media there. The American media were trying to pretend that this was the Olympic Games. I came across the line and I won.
"All these people were saying: 'How do you feel, you just won the Olympic Games,' and I said: `I want a Molson Canadian.' I was so thirsty."
After that quip however, Jones Konihowski quickly set about destroying the American media's delusion about the true significance of the Philadelphia Liberty Bell track meet.
"There's no comparison between this and the Olympics," she was quoted as saying back then.
Today, she has no idea where that gold medal is. "Probably in some box in my basement somewhere," she shrugs.
"Nothing can compare to the Olympics," she adds simply.
"For me, the boycott was like a death -- it really hurt.
"It was hard to know how to deal with it. You sort of look back at your life and go, 'My God, I dedicated 16 years to this goal.' Don't get me wrong, I had a wonderful athletic career. I attended two other Olympics in 1972 and 1976 -- met wonderful people, no complaints, but the icing on the cake was taken away from me."
What's more, the Games, she says, were to be her boundary line or jump-off point, separating more than one decade of intensive training from what she defines as "a normal life."
"There was never really closure for my athletic career, just one day you look at it and think, I've put my life on hold. Family, career, you know?"
Jones Konihowski decided to try again for the 1984 Olympics. She would have been 33 had she attended.
But in September of 1982 she says her priorities were turned upside down when she gave birth to her first daughter, Janna, in September 1982.
"Janna kind of put things in perspective for me," she says.
A new chapter had been written in her life and it didn't include six hours a day, six days a week at the track.
"Like all large losses in one's life, the pain of Moscow '80 gets fainter and fainter as the years pass," acknowledges Jones Konihowski.
"But it never really goes away either. I'll forever wonder what might have been."