KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Like many University of Kansas basketball fans as the NCAA Tournament was supposed to begin, Cliff Wiley felt disillusioned and deprived: His team, atop the game by virtually every metric, couldn’t compete for a national title because the COVID-10 coronavirus pandemic had shut down sports.
So on March 19, the day the tournament was to start in earnest, he was absorbed in a KU-produced version of “One Shining Moment” as he tried to reconcile it all.
“This can’t happen,” he said in the Missouri Valley Track & Field office in the 18th & Vine District the next day. “But it does happen.”
As Wiley knows only too well.
He is one of the few, the proud … the ethereal: a 1980 U.S. Olympian whose competitive berth was forsaken by the political ploy of then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
As the pawns in a gambit both feckless and reckless, you don’t know them the way you know many before and after those Games.
“But we’re out there,” Wiley said, smiling.
Forty years ago on April 12, when the USOC announced its acquiescence to Carter, this became a life-long burden to bear or resolve for many of the 466 American athletes who qualified … including more than 200 who didn’t make the 1984 team.
Amid the fallout of the pandemic, despite leading a meaningful life as an attorney, coach and mentor since, the parallels “hit me right away,” Wiley said. And it still hurts deeply.
Along the way, though, he’s come to some terms with it.
“What’s that old saying?” he said. “This too shall pass, you know?”
But not without trying to make sense of it, either.
And that’s something perhaps easier done in the current case, as lives are being spared by actions that included postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to next year, than it is when it comes to processing 1980.
Wiley grew up in Baltimore, and he’s quick to say, “Did you ever see ‘The Wire?’ I lived in The Wire. … But I tell you what, it’s all relative. There were good people and bad people.”
He became enamored of track early and vividly recalls watching the 1968 U.S. Olympic trials at Echo Summit in Lake Tahoe, a spectacle in itself with the track conjured around trees within the El Dorado National Forest.
“I remember guys running into the forest,” he said.
Meanwhile, he was trying to run out of the thicket confronting him, immersing himself in track as others kind of disappeared. Some just stopped running, some ended up at Maryland State … penitentiary, he added with a wry laugh.
Flourishing as he was in making a case as the most accomplished sprinter ever to come out of Baltimore, Wylie remembered taking recruiting trips all over the country.
But Kansas was a powerhouse under coach Bob Timmons, winning four NCAA championships and 13 Big Eight titles in his 24-year tenure. Wiley reckoned a man who coached 24 NCAA champions and seven Olympians (including Jim Ryun) could help him achieve his ambition.
Wylie mostly found himself at home on the range as he set his sights on his emerging passion to be an Olympian.
The 12-time All-America honoree grew through coaches and teammates. He was thriving as he took aim at the 1976 Montreal Olympics … only to be dealt a first bizarre blow to his long-term aspirations:
Because he was receiving a Basic Education Opportunity Grant (BEOG, the forerunner to the Pell Grant) for $1,400 for the school year along with his scholarship, in mid-March that year he was declared ineligible because he couldn’t pay back the money already spent on rent.
After his appeal was rejected, Wiley saw an ad for the Douglas County Legal Aid Society and paid a visit.
“Next thing I know, we’re going to Topeka,” he said.
Next thing you know, he had a temporary restraining order vs. the NCAA, Kansas, the Big Eight and beyond.
Even as that provided a foundation for his future legal career and set precedent for others, he lost crucial weeks of training and competed only a few times before the trials. He didn’t make it out of the quarterfinal heats.
When the 1976 Games began, he was watching at a friend’s house when he started crying and excused himself. He vowed he would make it in 1980.
Soon, Wiley was surging into prominence, ultimately becoming part of 13 U.S. national teams.
In 1977, he was third leg on a world-record U.S 4×100-meter relay team. In 1979, he was on the 4×100 team that won the Pan American Games.
In 1980, he qualified for the Moscow Olympics by finishing second in the 200 and was likely to be on relays, as well.
Hope as he might that there would be a last-minute reprieve to end the boycott, though, it never arrived.
In fact, Carter was steadfast after announcing on Jan. 21 that the United States would not send a team unless the Soviets withdrew from their recent invasion of Afghanistan by Feb. 20.
That deadline proved to be two days before the “Miracle On Ice” game, quite a contrast between one of the most celebrated episodes in U.S. Olympic annals and perhaps the most infamous.
The hollow move was brazenly politically motivated in an election year as Carter’s approval rating plummeting amid the Iranian hostage crisis. Or as Wiley deftly summed it up: Then-presidential candidate Ronald “Reagan said, ‘You’re soft on the commies.’ And the way that they could show that we were hard on the communists was to boycott the Games.”
Even though Carter pressured corporate sponsors to withhold funding and threatened legal action and pressured the USOC to boycott in April, Wiley said he and many others believed until the end that sense would prevail. How could they not?
“Your whole life is centered around meeting this goal,” he said. “And then, all of a sudden, it’s gone.”
Near the end of the Moscow Olympics, on July 30, 1980, most of the would-be competitors from Team USA were honored on the U.S. Capitol steps.
When Wiley shook hands with Carter at the White House, he was too overwhelmed to voice his displeasure.
Plus, he didn’t quite feel what he would come to feel.
“You know, my mother was there,” he said, laughing.
The event included Carter presenting each with a Congressional Gold Medal.
The sole footnote in the official record of Congressional Gold Medal Recipients is this anguishing qualifier about those medals:
“1H.R. 7482 designated 650 gold-plated Congressional Gold Medals to be presented to the entire 1980 Summer Olympic Team by the President of the United States. The large striking necessitated the creation of gold-plated medals.”
Maybe there was some sadly apt symbolism in that.
“Kind of like they stuck it to us again,” Wiley said with a laugh. “If you don’t laugh, you’re going to cry.”
Indeed: A few years ago, Wiley lost most of his memorabilia — medals, trophies, All-American citations, scrapbooks, posters he collected from all over the world — in a house fire.
That included the congressional medal, which Wiley said was probably “in some bag in my basement.”
Now, he realizes how stripping all that away made him appreciate what really matters. But he had a ways to go to get there.
Even as he was enrolled in law school at KU, Wiley still was in his prime and peaking in the 400, winning the U.S. nationals in 1981 and 1982 and expecting Los Angeles 1984 would be his time.
But about six weeks before the trials, he strained a leg muscle that upended his training. He failed to get past the 400-meter quarterfinals.
“And that’s when the significance of 1980 really hit,” he said. “It’s like when somebody passes, and the minister says, ‘Be there for this family later on.’
“At the funeral, they cry. But it’s not until afterwards that it sets in that this person is really gone.”
So Wiley’s still not pacified when it comes to the wonderful legacy Carter has created since leaving office, emphasizing the word “after.”
He still nurses bitterness. And he still flinches at semi-similar experiences being endured now by the KU basketball team and so many others in college and high school — particularly seniors.
And something about this will always remain complicated, too.
He should be known for much more than what he didn’t do, whether it’s his other track feats or efforts to help others here and in Baltimore and his legal work.
Yet he also wants it known he was on the team that never was. And that shouldn’t be reserved for a Jeopardy question or subject to invasion by some who proclaim they were but weren’t.
“That kind of discredits the quality of your achievement,” he said.
Over time, though, he has found some healing and peace.
At 64 now, Wiley has thought more about “the totality of things, of how life really is.”
Nothing is guaranteed, and he understands this better than ever now.
Just like it wasn’t for his youngest brother, John, who had a rare form of glaucoma from an early age and is blind. He has a master’s degree now, his admiring brother says, and he gets up every day to negotiate a world in the dark
“Which takes real courage,” Wiley said. “Yeah, I lost an opportunity to compete. But every day, every day, he’s got to get up and compete at a level that I’ve never had to compete at.”
He has been soothed, too, by the camaraderie of the track world and being made to feel part of the Olympic family.
At an annual track event in Lake Tahoe in 2000, for example, he recalled speaking with 1968 double-medalist Larry James about how incredible that Olympic team was. But when he suggested he wasn’t of the same ilk, James invoked other prominent Olympians and told Wiley, “We claim you as one of us.”
“It literally brought tears to my eyes,” Wiley said, adding, “That to me is worth more than any medal I ever could have won.”
Funny about the medals, actually.
As he looks back, they don’t seem like such a big deal. At least philosophically, neither does the half million dollars or so he figures he could have earned through those medals and sponsorships in 1980.
What matters is the striving and the adventures and the people: those who coached him and teammates and those he competed against, some of whom he is making a point of looking up and calling these days.
“It’s that ladder that you climb to get there,” he said. “All my medals are gone. I lost those in the fire, OK? But those experiences that I got, those challenges that I met, those are the things that I hold dearest.”
Even when he thinks about the experience he didn’t get to grasp, the one he wanted most.
And that’s a point he wants to convey to those going through this now.
“I recognize that there is a profound loss that they’re going to feel,” he said. “Don’t discount that. But also take some sort of solace in the fact that you did compete well, that you did achieve these things.
“And treasure those. Treasure the relationships that you built, the hardship that you endured, the challenges that you met.”
Just the same, much as he hopes KU can properly commemorate this season, he still hopes for a fitting recognition of the 1980 team:
Let it be part of the opening ceremonies at, say, the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles.
“Just to be able to march in,” he said, “and to be able to say it was a long time coming.”
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