BOUNTIFUL — I hesitated bringing it up at first, the subject being what you might call delicate.
Finally, I just blurted it out.
So, Henry Marsh, how did it feel watching Americans compete in an Olympics in Russia even though you weren’t one of them?
Brief history lesson here: In 1980, U.S. President Jimmy Carter decided to have America boycott the summer Olympic Games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Among those athletes who didn’t get to go was Henry Marsh, a BYU graduate and the odds-on favorite to win gold in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Marsh was 26 back then. He turned 60 this year. Enough water has passed under the bridge that not only are those boycotted 1980 Summer Games largely forgotten, but so, amazingly enough, is the Soviet Union.
But for those who were directly affected, the forgetting doesn’t come as easily. I was a young sports writer in 1980, credentialed to go to Moscow and cover the games. I know I’ve never forgiven Jimmy Carter. How about Henry?
His answer didn’t surprise me.
“I’m not bitter,” he said. “Bitterness does you zero good. We all have unfortunate experiences, times when things don’t go our way. If that’s my worst .”
Besides, Marsh said he found something to focus on in the Russian Winter Games of 2014 — something that greatly softened the blow of what might have been.
Utah athletes winning medals.
“Watching Utahns just dominate,” he said, “that was cool.”
Athletes who were either born and raised in the state or who moved here to train were everywhere in Sochi. No fewer than 11 medals were won by this group — nearly half of the grand total of 28 collected on Russian snow and ice by the U.S. team.
Marsh took personal satisfaction in watching that happen. Not only was seeing fellow Utahns win medals the next best thing, but as a member of both the bid and organizing committees for the 2002 Winter Olympics, one of his major arguments for bringing the games to Salt Lake City was the advantage it would give local athletes.
“I really focused on the fact that there are so few facilities for winter sports in the country, and if we got the Olympics and built those facilities here, our youth would be the ones who would get to use them and it would be a huge advantage,” he said. “What happened in Sochi was verification of that.”
Focusing too much on Carter’s boycott, he said, would have only “brought up wounds.”
In 1980, Marsh was president of the Athletes Advisory Council of the U.S. Olympic Committee; he remembered being flown to the White House early that spring not long after the Soviet army had invaded Afghanistan to come to the aid of the embattled communist government there.
Marsh was in a position of influence with Olympic athletes, and the Carter administration wanted to plead its case to him personally.
Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, met Marsh and other Olympic leaders and pulled down a map of the world. He pointed to Afghanistan.
“He said, ‘Look, this is all that’s standing between the Soviets and the Persian Gulf. If they get there they will control two-thirds of the world’s oil supply and we can’t let that happen. They have to be stopped and this (Olympic boycott) will hit them where it hurts,’ ” Marsh recalled.
The athletes were in a no-win situation. To vote against Carter’s boycott would be a vote against their country — plus, all of the USOC’s funding support from patriotic sponsors would almost assuredly dry up.
“So I voted yes to the boycott. We all did,” Marsh said, still wincing after all these years.
“I think in hindsight everybody agrees it was a stupid decision,” he added. “It was so ridiculous because it didn’t make any difference. It was the same with them (the Soviets) boycotting the games in Los Angeles in ’84. It just hurt them.”
“At least I got to compete in three other Olympics,” he said.
Although the 1980 Games occurred when he was in his 26-year-old prime. The summer previous, he had traveled to Moscow and won a gold medal in the steeplechase at the Spartakiade, the Soviet Union’s national meet that served as a preview and tune-up for the next year’s Olympics. And in the 1980 Olympic trials, he was named the meet’s outstanding athlete after setting a national record in the steeplechase.
No one was betting against Marsh in the Olympics — except Jimmy Carter.
These days, Marsh still has his eyes set on the Olympics, although with a slightly different objective. As a founder and vice president of the board of the Salt Lake City-based direct-marketing company MonaVie, he is helping formulate plans for a promotional trip for MonaVie distributors to the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
“I’ve loved the Olympics ever since my first experience in ’76 (in Montreal),” he said. “That was during the height of the Cold War and yet I sat there in the athlete’s village and watched people from all these countries that were supposed to be at war come together in peace. That spirit of the Olympics is so unique. In this world of conflict, it is an oasis.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org