Bill Rea looked vacantly out the leaded windows of Schloss Wülflingen, an elegant little restaurant in the Swiss city of Winterthur. The occasion was supposed to have been a celebratory dinner, but Rea wore the slightly bewildered expression of the lost, or dispossessed. That afternoon, in his first appearance as a long jumper for the Austrian national team, Rea had finished third behind a Spaniard and a Swiss. Worse, he had learned that the Austrians hadn't yet committed themselves to sending him to the Moscow Olympics. They had been keenly disappointed in that day's performance—25'2½" into a slight headwind—which tied the Austrian national record but didn't meet that country's qualification standard for the Olympics, 25'11". It was a distance Rea had surpassed in at least six meets this year in the U.S., where he is sixth-ranked nationally. The Austrians, who have never had a male medal winner in Olympic track and field, weren't sending many athletes to the Games. Rea wondered for a moment what he was doing there, a stranger on a strange team.
"When you lose," Rea said slowly, shifting his gaze back inside the restaurant, "you lose yourself for a while. You're lonely. After I finished, I just wanted to go home."
Home for Rea is Elizabeth, Pa. near Pittsburgh. Were it not for his long jumping, he would be there now, plunging into decayed molars instead of sandpits. A 1977 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine, the 28-year-old Rea practiced in a private office for one year, then spent a year as an intern at a local hospital doing oral surgery before taking off for Switzerland on May 1, 1980, where he was to join the Austrian team.
Rea's is perhaps the strangest story in a strange Olympic year. He was born in Austria while his father served as a master sergeant at the U.S. base near Vienna, and thus he was eligible for dual citizenship.
July 20, 1980
In the spring of 1972, in his sophomore year at Pitt, Rea jumped 26'2¾" at the U.S. Olympic Trials, just two inches short of the winning 26'4¾". But there were two other long jumpers tucked between him and first place. If the margin of difference had been greater, perhaps Rea's dream of going to the Olympics would have disappeared, but two inches is a hauntingly small percentage of 26½ feet.
Rea continued to jump while in dental school, but at the 1976 Olympic Trials, the best he could do was 25'2", and he failed to qualify for the finals. "I'd had six solid years of competition on a national level, and I was burned out," he says. So Rea retired from competition, finished dental school and went to work.
A year of root canals and crowns wasn't wholly satisfying to an athlete who had once ranked ninth in the world in his specialty. Seeking a challenge, Rea became a dental intern at Pittsburgh's Montefiore Hospital, working 60 to 70 hours a week sewing lips back onto faces after barroom stools had removed them.
After a two-year hiatus from athletic competition, Rea began training again and came in fifth in the U.S. outdoor championships in 1979. That encouraged him to make a serious push for Moscow, and last June he became "the lowest-paid dentist in the world" by leaving Montefiore and training full time, living on his savings.
By July—six months before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan—Rea had decided to try to make the 1980 Olympics as an Austrian, but first he had to make a name for himself at meets in Europe. "The promoters would say, 'Rea? Rea? Who is this Rea?' I'd show them a copy of Track & Field News and point to my fifth-place finish in the U.S. championships. They'd say, 'O.K., you must be good.' If I did well in that meet, the promoter for the next one would see it and pay my way there. I wasn't in good enough shape to win very often, but I came for the experience and exposure, and the Austrians became interested."
After three months of European competition Rea returned to the States, and in November moved to Clemson, S.C. to train in warm weather. He slept on a cot in a dormitory room at Clemson University, did some tutoring, ran study halls and kept a hand in the profession—and the bill collectors at bay—by performing experimental surgery on dogs for the university. In February Rea finished second to Larry Myricks—the No. 1-ranked long jumper in the world last year—at the national indoor championships in Madison Square Garden. On May 3 he jumped a wind-aided 26'7¾" in Houston, and later that month he jumped 26'7" in Knoxville. By that time, of course, the USOC had already voted to go along with the boycott of the Moscow Games. Austria's Olympic Committee, however, rejected a boycott proposal 37-7.
Rea had never considered withdrawing from his Olympic quest. "The athletes have been doing it for themselves all these years, handing out towels and jockstraps to finance their training," he says, "and all of a sudden Carter wants them to help him out of his own political bind. If he had just quietly tried to get the support of the athletes instead of ordering them: 'Look, you're not going,' he would've gotten a lot better results. If I felt I was the only Westerner going it might change my mind, but it's still going to be a helluva Games."
Rea encountered virtually no flak in the U.S.—not from athletes or coaches left behind; not from his now-retired Army father; not from the USOC. One American interviewer asked, "Don't you feel unpatriotic...?"—but that was cut short with an obscenity from Rea.
Rea plans to return to the U.S. after the Olympics and, if he jumps well in Moscow, to continue competing.
"I've always wanted to go to the Olympic Games," says Rea. "I've always wanted to win a medal. So what I've got is tunnel vision. It's important to me that I've done it by myself, that I've been able to get this far by myself. Eventually, maybe I'll go back to Pittsburgh and open a dentist's office, but right now I'm too young. I'd be lying to you if I said I had a good chance to win a silver or gold. But put it this way: if I have my best day ever, I could win an Olympic medal."
Which is the attraction of sport. In what other activity can one ever say with certainty: That was my best day ever.
At Winterthur the press spokesman for the Austrian Athletics Union came over to Rea and asked, "The rest of the U.S. athletes...they want to go?"
The spokesman pressed his palms together and smiled at Rea. "You," he said. "You are the lucky one."
The spokesman was prescient. A short time later Rea was informed that his U.S. jumps would be accepted for qualifying. He had made the team.