On May 16, 1980, John H. Pratt, the District Judge for the District of Columbia, handed down a 23-page decision denying 25 athletes an injunction against the U.S. Olympic Committee's decision not to send a team to the Moscow Games. "The courts have correctly recognized that many of life's disappointments, even major ones, do not enjoy constitutional protection," wrote Pratt. "This is one such instance." It was the end of the line.
Peter Schnugg of Orinda, Calif. is 29 years old and a member of the Athletes' Advisory Council to the USOC. He was a party to the suit before Judge Pratt, the only athlete included who had actually made the 1980 Olympic team, having been selected for the water polo squad the week before the USOC bowed to President Carter's wishes.
Schnugg has recently taken his MBA from Stanford's graduate school of business. An affable, gregarious man, he nonetheless became one of the most knowledgeable and determined opponents of the boycott, continuing with the final lawsuit "when its best hope was to instruct the USOC in its responsibilities, but without much chance of causing the sending of a team."
Inevitably, in reviewing the train of events surrounding the boycott, Schnugg begins far back, with the start of his own career. "I'm kind of the incorrigible type," he says, smiling, from the large patio of his parents' home. "When I was eight my father started me swimming because I was a troublemaker. I was the first one he tried that with. Everybody after me swam." A younger brother, John, 20, plays water polo for Cal, and another, Tom, 18, is first-team All-America at Miramonte High School.
July 20, 1980
At 15, Peter Schnugg took up water polo at the Concord Swim Club, where he was taught and inspired by Coach Pete Cutino. Soon he was addicted. "At Cal I was on a swimming scholarship, so I had to swim," he says. "They knew I'd play polo. I wasn't very good, just faster than hell. I'd make three mistakes and be able to cover two with speed."
During his senior year, Schnugg was named an alternate on the 1972 Olympic team but didn't get to go to Munich, where the U.S. won a bronze medal. "My motive increased tenfold after that," he says. "If those guys were third best in the world and I could beat them out, I knew I'd be right there."
Three years later Schnugg was a mainstay on the U.S. team, but in 1975 American water polo was in a down cycle. "Every year the coach of the national champion club was made the U.S. national coach," Schnugg says. "There was no consistency." Twelve teams would qualify for the Montreal Games in pre-Olympic tournaments. The U.S. did not qualify. Again, Schnugg wouldn't get to the Olympics.
"But that failure caused terrific re-evaluation," he says. "We got a four-year coach, Monte Nitzkowski. We had more training camps, more USOC development money." In 1978 the U.S. qualified fifth for Moscow. In the 1979 FIN A Cup the U.S. lost in the finals to Hungary on a goal scored in the last 12 seconds. "Everybody got out of the pool saying, 'Geez, we are pretty good,' " Schnugg recalls. "We were looking at a good chance of gold in Moscow."
And then the boycott. Like most, Schnugg couldn't take the prospect seriously at first. "In this country amateur sports have always been at the bottom of the ladder," he says. "Then, in one speech, wham, top rung, up there with foreign policy and national defense. I thought: That's reasonable. Odd, but reasonable. In a couple of months, though, it will pass, be back to normal.' At a training camp I asked the guys about it. And they said, 'Yeah, it's dumb,' but there was no real discussion of it."
Then in Colorado Springs, at a meeting Schnugg attended in January, the USOC heard from Lloyd Cutler of the White House and learned the results of the public-opinion polls, which were massively in favor of the boycott. "I was mad at everybody then," Schnugg recalls. "At the USOC for not coming out and fighting, at Carter for this casual killing of something I valued. I think at that point I made a decision. I could keep training and hope, or I could keep training and do my best to show that some of the things said by the Administration were not supportable. I chose the second and that became my therapy, getting my feelings out."
It wasn't always easy. "Sports reporters didn't have a good enough grasp of politics to be accurate," Schnugg says. "And political reporters seemed to feel that we were just a bunch of dumb jocks. But the Winter Olympics showed the value of the Games, and the polls began to shift. Then, the British Olympic Association challenged the Thatcher government and decided to send a team. There was hope."
Which was promptly crushed by White House pressure and the final buckling of the USOC House of Delegates in April. "They had to vote that way," Schnugg says now. "The USOC couldn't afford to take a moral stand on the issue. On one level you could see it coming. But athletes don't have contingency plans for losing. And so afterward I was just adrift. The goal had been yanked. I went up to my room in the hotel and just sat there.
"The team was to go to Europe for a pre-Olympic tournament. I called home and said to my family and friends, 'I'm really sorry, after all your support and help and concern, it's come to this.' My mother said, 'You get over there to Europe and kick their butts.'
"The team gathered in Canada. Some of us were in tears. Everybody had gone through what I had. We were frustrated, we wanted to go home and be with people who loved us, but when we called them, we all got the same thing: 'Get over there and win.' The camaraderie and friendship from all the years of training and travel and competition prevailed. We did it for the love of the game, and each other. We went, and we played well for a week, and then we fell apart. We got third purely on talent; we were so inconsistent it was embarrassing. I came home then, and said to the coach, 'Give 'em hell. I'm done. I'm retired.' "
Now Schnugg is working as the general manager of the Concord and Pleasant Hill Aquatic Club, while he interviews for a management position to fit his education. In his spare time he is trying to market a device for lighting charcoal. "One hopes more people are coming to understand amateur athletes, that though we postpone careers and families, eventually what we gain makes us very productive people. It's a great screening process for me. When I find people who can't understand what I've done, I know I don't want to work for them." That understanding, in Schnugg's view, has to do with effort, with clarity of dedication.
"My father has always said, 'As long as you're doing something worthwhile, and you're busting your ass to get it done...that's legitimate.' I've always been legitimate."
He sits on the now-dim patio, listening to the warm California wind in his father's pines, the sounds of family within the house. "There are lots of people around here who feel worse about it than I do," he says finally. "I had a rewarding career. I just never got to go to the Olympics."