KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s been 41 years, but Cliff Wiley still gets choked up when he talks about the 1980 Olympics.
Wiley was among the world’s top sprinters of his generation. He made the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 meters, but the dream withered amid political unrest after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
“I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow,” President Jimmy Carter announced during his 1980 State of the Union address.
Technically, Carter didn’t have the authority to unilaterally boycott the Moscow Olympics, but U.S. Olympic Committee rubber-stamped his announcement on April 12, 1983.
Despite that, the U.S. Track and Field Olympic Trials were staged June 21-29 in Eugene, Oregon, where Wiley finished second in the 200 final — .05 seconds behind James Butler.
“The reality is that we actually believed that something was going to happen all the way up until the Opening Ceremonies of the (Moscow) Games,” Wiley said. “We actually believed that call was going to come and they were going to say, ‘Get your stuff and be at the airport with your passport. We are going to the Games.’ It (the boycott) was just not something that we ever believed would actually occur.”
After all, the Soviets had invaded on Christmas Eve in 1979, but they hadn’t been barred from competing that winter during the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York — an event that started more than three weeks after Carter’s declaration at the State of the Union.
“It was just unfathomable that we would boycott the Games …,” Wiley said. “I don’t know how you could ignore the fact that so many young people put so much time and effort in, that you could take their dream from them. But I don’t think Carter was the only person to blame. Everybody fell in line with it.”
Wiley: ‘Track forever’
Growing up on McKean Avenue in Baltimore, Cliff Wiley idolized the Orioles of the 1960s.
“I thought I was going to be a baseball player,” said Wiley, now an attorney in the Kansas City area. “The Baltimore Orioles, c’mon now, we were always winning in the ‘60s — Frank Robinson, Boog Powell, Luis Aparicio, Brooks Robinson on third base, Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar. So, I was going to be a baseball player.”
There was just one problem. Wiley, who was 12 in the summer of 1967, couldn’t hit.
He and other children from the neighborhood used to gather at Easterwood Park and play against children from other blocks.
They’d share gloves and bats, playing baseball for hours on end.
Sometimes, when a young player got two strikes, an older child from the neighborhood would jump in and take his last swing, but Wiley was proud — and a little defiant.
“This time, I said, ‘No, I’m gonna take my last swing.’ Of course, I struck out,” Wiley said with a laugh. “We were heading out to the outfield and I just kept going, straight out the gate. That was the last time I played baseball.”
On the way home, he met a girl in his class, who described her summer spent traveling the East Coast for meets with the local recreational track and field club coached by Ralph Durant, Wiley’s older neighbor across the street growing up on McKean Avenue.
The next spring, Wiley joined the after-school track program and a decades-long love affair began.
“I’m down there with my holey Bill Russell tennis shoes on,” Wiley said. “Let me tell you something, it’s tough when you’re running on a cinder track and there’s holes in your tennis shoes, but I was down there just giving it a shot.”
During meets, a man from a different recreation center would pass out “state shoes” — described by Wiley as all black, but different shades, and in mismatched sizes. He’d grab an oversized pair that were close enough to run his races.
Durant put Wiley on two relays at his first meet and he came home with two trophies.
“I was hooked from there on in,” Wiley said.
But a trip to St. Louis for the 1968 U.S. Youth Games cemented his love for the sport. He represented Baltimore against teams from other metropolitan areas across the country.
“You’re running with your city's name on your chest,” Wiley said. “I got on an airplane; I’ve never been on an airplane before. We go to St. Louis, and I stay in a hotel; I’ve never stayed in a hotel before. We ate at a restaurant; I’ve never eaten in a restaurant. When that TWA 707 takes off, I’m hooked. I’m like, track forever.”
NCAA, international success
By the time he finished high school, Wiley was a sought-after track and field recruit.
He visited LSU, Alabama, Morgan State, Howard, Villanova, Maryland, Oregon, Kansas, Kansas State and the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York, among others.
“If you sent me a plane ticket, I was coming out to see your school,” Wiley said with a big smile.
The University of Kansas was a national track and field power at the time, so eventually he signed with the Jayhawks, arriving in Lawrence in the fall of 1974.
His time at KU included a showdown with the NCAA in the spring of 1976 over Pell Grant money he received in excess of his track scholarship, which the NCAA considered an extra benefit.
The case — Clifford Wiley vs. the National Collegiate Athletic Association, et al — went to court, where Wiley received an injunction, and continued to compete.
“I grew up a lot with that situation,” Wiley said. “Before that, you’re an athlete and things are just going well for you. Then you get slapped in the real world.”
It became moot after he graduated in 1978 and the case was tossed over a lack of federal standing, but the NCAA eventually changed the rule voluntarily to allow qualifying athletes to receive both scholarship and Pell Grant money — even if it exceeds tuition costs.
While the court case caused a headache for Wiley, he managed to thrive on the track anyway, earning All-America honors 13 times at KU and winning an NCAA indoor title in the 1,600 relay in 1977.
During and after his college career, Wiley shined even brighter on the international stage, even while working his way into and through law school at KU.
He ran on the U.S. 400 relay team at the 1977 IAAF World Cup, which won in world-record time, and added another gold medal in the 400 relay at the 1979 Pan American Games.
Wiley moved up to the open 400 after the disappointment of the 1980 Olympics, winning gold at the 1981 World Student Games, 1981 IAAF World Cup and 1983 Pan American Games. He also won the U.S. championship in the event in 1981, ranking No. 1 in the world, and again in 1982.
Still, the Olympics were always the primary goal.
Wiley: ‘Dream is never going to come true’
Wiley first watched the Olympic Trials in 1968 as the runners seemed to circle in and out of the tall timber at a hastily installed track in South Lake Tahoe, California.
It was at altitude and made of the same surface as the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City, where the Olympic Games were set to take place.
“I couldn’t figure out why these guys who were running, why they’re crying when they didn’t make the team,” Wiley said. “I was like, ‘Why are they crying? It’s just a track meet.’ But let me tell you something — you don’t make the team, you cry.”
There was the NCAA fight, which disrupted his training ahead of the 1976 Olympic Trials. Wiley made the quarterfinals in the 100 and 200 at the meet before being eliminated.
He concentrated exclusively on the 200 at the 1980 Olympic Trials, but it was the 1984 Olympic Trials that provided Wiley’s greatest disappointment.
“Everything was falling into place,” Wiley said of the build up to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. “Then, I just had the slightest (hamstring) strain.”
As with all sprinters, Wiley strained the occasional muscle, but the timing of this one was terrible, disrupting his training a month before the Olympic Trials.
“The way that I trained, those four weeks, too much is lost,” he said.
During the 1984 Olympic Trials, Wiley finished fourth in his heat, advancing to the quarterfinals on time. He then finished sixth in his quarterfinal heat, ending his Olympic dream.
“I’ll tell you when it really hurts the most,” said Wiley, choking up as tears welled in his eyes. “When you meet with the inevitable understanding that you’re never going to make it there. That’s when you know.”
He paused to gather himself and continued, “That’s when you know that the dream is never going to come true. For me, it was after the ’84 (Olympic) Trials. Before then, I always believed that I had another shot. That’s when it really stinks and what the real loss was.”
When Carter handed out Congressional Gold Medals to the aggrieved Olympic team July 30, 1980, on the steps of the Capitol, Wiley collected his medal and bit his tongue. He thought about saying something, but decided it wasn’t the appropriate time.
“No, my mother was there, and she ain’t gonna put up with that,” Wiley said, laughing. “I’m not going to embarrass myself or my family or my school and coaches and teammates by having a scene like that.”
He came to appreciate the medal more with time before it was lost — along with most of his international trophies, posters he collected from meets around the world and other mementos, including the photo receiving the medal from Carter, from his track career — in a 2017 house fire.
New Olympic dream
Wiley still has a few posters in his third-floor office inside the Historic Lincoln Building, but “the only thing in the house that survived was a small trophy from when we set the world record in the 4x100 (relay) at the first World Cup of track and field,” Wiley said.
And it’s not particularly special.
“You wouldn’t know that it’s a track-and-field trophy, because it’s so small and it’s just a Bavarian man doing a cartwheel on one hand with legs up,” Wiley said. "It just says World Cup. I don’t have anything great to show people.”
He suspects there are some medals or trophies from his earlier days in the sport at his mother’s house or in storage at his brother’s house, but it’s the memories he cherishes most anyway — even the painful ones.
“What I take from my career? I carry all that up here,” Wiley said, pointing to his head. “Those medals and things, they really have become less important to me over the years.”
It’s his work in the youth track and field world that keeps Wiley, now 66 years old, connected with the sport.
He hosted the Cliff Wiley Track Classic for 35 years in his native Baltimore. It’s since been replaced by the International Youth Track and Field Championships, which Wiley helps organize.
He’s also involved with an indoor invitational that will debut Jan. 8, 2022, at the Jan. 8 meet at Washburn University of Topeka.
Wiley has served on five U.S. national team staffs in various capacities and also worked with the U.S. junior national program, serving as head coach for the 2014 U.S. junior national team at the Pan American Games.
Trayvon Bromell, who won the men’s 100 at this month’s U.S. Olympic Trials, was on the 2014 junior team, so it was thrilling for Wiley to see him achieve his Olympic dream.
“It’s not bittersweet,” Wiley said of watching the Olympic Trials. “It’s feeling good about them, that they make it.”
But he does pay careful attention to the athletes whose dreams are shattered, knowing how difficult that moment and the realization you won’t qualify for the Olympics can be.
Wiley said it’s part of what drew him to working with the U.S. national team, hoping “to work my way up the ranks, so I could be on one of the Olympic team staffs and march into the stadium in the Opening Ceremonies as one of the staff.”
It’s another of those experiences he was robbed of in 1980 and part of the reason he recently wrote to the U.S. Olympic Committee, asking that the athletes from his Olympic year can be involved in the 2028 Opening Ceremony for the Los Angeles Games.
“Basically, what I said was, ‘Hey, let us walk in the parade in 2028,’” Wiley said. “Not many of us are going to be around, but if we start that now and put the bug out there. Hopefully, I’m around. I’m trying to jog and everything, but I think it would be a fitting recognition. It doesn’t make up for it, but it kind of gives you that recognition.”