EDITOR’S NOTE: Chuck Yagla of Iowa bank architectural firm Kirk Gross Company was a two-time NCAA wrestling champion while attending the University of Iowa in 1975 and 1976. Yagla was set to compete in the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow — until the United States boycotted them. Yagla shares his story of missing out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience and offers insight for all who face disappointment over canceled events today.
At the beginning of 1980, I was ready to go and win a gold medal in Moscow. Then Jimmy Carter came out in late January and said we would boycott the Olympics if the Soviet Union didn’t withdraw their troops from Afghanistan by a certain date. That didn’t stop my training because I didn’t think we’d ever truly boycott. I kept training like we were gonna go up until the very end. When the realization finally hit that we weren’t gonna go, obviously it was a huge letdown even though we went ahead with [Olympic] trials.
It was definitely a different type of tournament, knowing you were going to be an Olympian but not go to any games. There was no crowd at the trials, maybe just some family members and media, in a school gym type atmosphere. It still felt great to win though. I accomplished what I set out to do, making the U.S. Olympic team.
They invited the entire U.S. Olympic team to Washington, D.C., and wined and dined us for two weeks. Both Congress and the U.S. Olympic Committee gave us each a gold medal. I jokingly say the most I could have earned was one gold medal, but from boycotting I got two gold medals, although of course I would have rather had the opportunity to win one on the mat.
I think I would’ve won a gold medal. Obviously we never will know, but I had success against the Soviet wrestlers. At that time I was at my peak, I was 26 years old, and I was in great shape. I was ready to go. The ultimate winner of the gold medal was a Soviet wrestler who moved up from the weight class below me, and I was always big for my weight class so I don’t think I would have had any trouble with him. The silver medalist was a Bulgarian that I had beat the year before in the World Championships by 10 points, so in my mind, I would have had the gold medal.
For an amateur wrestler, the ultimate goal is to win an Olympic gold medal so I got the next best thing: I made the United States Olympic team. It’s so incredibly hard to make an Olympic team, so just making the team is a huge honor. But then I didn’t get to compete so my biggest accomplishment at the same time is also my biggest disappointment.
There’s definitely a lot of similarities with the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Championships. The athletes are getting robbed similarly of a chance to become a national champion. I feel very sad for them, but it’s health concerns so it’s life and death. I think they should have an opportunity for another year. That opens up a lot of complications with the scholarship limits and incoming freshmen, but I still think the right thing to do is give them another year.
It’s life. You have things that come up that you can’t control. I couldn’t control the boycott, obviously all these athletes now can’t control the pandemic. It’s a huge disappointment but you have to put it behind you and move forward and get the next best thing.