Unlike the U.S. track and field athletes in Portland, the two coaches and 15 fighters on the American amateur boxing team that fought last week in Moscow were firm in their view of the Olympic boycott—they don't like the idea. The fighters, who were in the U.S.S.R. for the latest of a 12-year series of annual bouts with Soviet boxers, had even ignored an 11th-hour State Department request that they not make the trip.
"There's no question we'd like to participate in the Olympics," said Dwaine Simpson, coach of the American team, to a crowd of correspondents—only two or three of whom represented Western media—at a press conference held in the Sports Palace. "The boys have been preparing for the Games for 3½ years. It's natural that they want to come. My personal feeling is—and it's shared by my colleagues in the U.S. Boxing Association—that politics and sports shouldn't be mixed." The Eastern-bloc journalists in attendance nodded in agreement.
Soviet and American fighters have been mixing it up on a regular basis since 1969, when the two countries' teams met in Las Vegas. At that time officials from both nations agreed to meet every year, alternating the site of the bouts, which are held in all 11 amateur weight divisions, between Moscow and Vegas.
The agreement also stipulated that in addition to the "official" fights, the visiting team would travel to various cities for exhibitions—or "friendly" bouts, as the Soviets call them. Thus this year's U.S. team, having lost 8-3 in Moscow, left late last week for appearances in Tbilisi in Soviet Georgia and Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania.
Like the Soviet track athletes in Oregon, the U.S. boxers, most of whom were youngsters inexperienced in international competition, received a welcome that didn't reflect the current tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. If anything, the Americans were treated better than U.S. teams usually are in the Soviet Union. The boxers were housed at the Metropol Hotel in downtown Moscow, a sumptuous accommodation rarely given over to visiting athletes. Asked what his reactions were after two days in Moscow, featherweight Jon Russell, 19, of Tampico, Ill., said, "It's been very good. The Soviet officials are treating us very well. They've taken us on city tours. The food in the hotel is very good, so are the rooms. So, we don't complain."
"We feel absolutely no pressure from anybody," added 20-year-old bantamweight Vince Christian of Philadelphia. Which is not to say the team went unnoticed. Fifteen kids, most of them black, wearing bright-red down jackets and red ski caps got curious glances in the snow-covered Moscow streets, where most of the other pedestrians were wearing gray or black. But no one yelled at the boxers, nor did they feel any hostility from the few Russians they met at the Metropol or at the gym where they worked out.
The treatment of the U.S. fighters at the hands of their Soviet opponents was another matter. At his press conference, Simpson had expressed concern that his squad had yet to shake off the effects of jet lag. But he concluded the session by saying, "I'm sure everyone on the team will put up a good fight, we'll do our best, and if we do our best, I feel we'll be winners."
Apparently the jet lag was still there the next day, or Simpson had underestimated the strength of the Soviet squad, because only three of the U.S. boxers were winners.
The bouts took place at the jammed Sports Palace of Lenin Stadium which was renovated last year to house the Olympic gymnastics competitions this July. The lights of the arena dimmed dramatically as the two teams—the U.S. boxers in white uniforms, the Soviets in blue—and the crowd stood at respectful attention while the Soviet national anthem and The Star-Spangled Banner were played.
Polite applause greeted the first American boxer into the ring, world junior light flyweight amateur champion Robert Shannon of Edmonds, Wash. And the crowd became downright generous in its cheers after the first round of Shannon's bout, in which he gave a masterful display of his title-winning skills. However, the jet lag, or at least Kamil Safin, caught up with Shannon in the final two rounds, and he was decisioned by the Soviet boxer. The only U.S. winners were flyweight Hurley Sneed, middleweight Alex Ramos and Lee Roy Murphy, a light heavyweight, who were all dutifully cheered.
But predictably the loudest crowd reaction was reserved for the home-country favorites, especially 18-year-old heavyweight Aleksandr (Sasha) Yagupkin. Though outweighted by 65 pounds by his U.S. opponent, 22-year-old David Bey of Philadelphia, Yagupkin disposed of Bey in a three-round decision. As the bout drew to a close, the Soviet fans, perhaps a little giddy from the U.S.S.R.'s resounding team victory, broke into chants of "Sasha! Sasha!" It was just the sort of celebration that the Soviet leadership hoped its people would enjoy come July, but now probably won't.