A class left behind

Fighters like Sadam Ali hope to use the Beijing Olympics as a launchpad to success -- something the class of '80 couldn't do. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

It comes every four years. It is the grandest athletic spectacle on the globe. The Olympics is the stage on which the greatest athletes get to perform. The event gives rise to legends and heroes worldwide.

But for those whose Olympic dreams were snatched away, the Games merely serve as a reminder of what could have been.

"How can I forget about it, they still have the Olympics every four years, don't they?" said Richie Sandoval, a flyweight on the 1980 U.S. Olympic boxing team. "That's something that stays, always -- always -- in my memory."

The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted by the United States and 64 other countries as a protest to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Forget for a moment the irony of the U.S. taking a stand for Afghanistan back then, and instead consider that Afghanistan actually sent 11 athletes to these Games. But with the Cold War and arms races still a daily American reality at that time, it was a stand president Jimmy Carter felt was necessary -- even if it meant sacrificing the years of dedication for thousands of American athletes who had been in pursuit of their Olympic dreams.

Try to remember any of the athletes from any 1980 Olympic team.

Difficult, isn't it?

The 1976 Olympics introduced us to American stars like Bruce Jenner and John Naber and international greats Nadia Comaneci and Alberto Juantorena. And, of course, there was the U.S. boxing team, which won five gold medals, one silver and one bronze. The games gave berth to the rise of Sugar Ray Leonard, Michael Spinks, Howard Davis and Leon Spinks.

The television coverage -- led by ABC's Howard Cosell -- that the 1976 boxing team received gave the sport much-needed exposure and inspired countless kids across the country to take up boxing.

"I started boxing in 1974 and the first Olympic Games I ever saw was 1976," said Robert Shannon, a junior flyweight on the 1980 U.S. team. "I saw Sugar Ray Leonard, Howard Davis, Leon Spinks. And Leo Randolph was from here in Washington. I wanted to turn pro right after the [1980] Olympics. It was going to be a wonderful thing for me."

It didn't happen that way.

"I was at a dual-meet in the Soviet Union when I heard the news," Shannon said. "I was signing autographs and someone came up to me and said it's too bad you guys won't be back for the Olympics. I was like, 'What are you talking about?'"

When addressing the athletes about the boycott, Carter said, "I understand how you feel. What we are doing is preserving the principles and the quality of the Olympics, not destroying it." Many of the athletes were being pulled in two directions. There was a feeling that they wanted to be patriotic and support the president, but the cost was shelving their own goals.

"The Olympics meant so much to a boxer," Sandoval said. "To fight in the Olympics -- and win -- sets you up for your pro career."

The 1976 team established the blueprint that all amateur fighters aspired to follow. Their success in the Olympics afforded them increased television exposure and media coverage at the start of their careers and, more importantly, significantly higher purses than a non-Olympic amateur would receive for his pro debut.

The boycott took all of that away from the 1980 fighters. They turned pro with little fanfare and even less money.

"The boycott significantly hurt these fighters when they turned pro," said Steve Farhood, a boxing analyst for Showtime who was the editor-in-chief of KO magazine in 1980. "In those days, there was more mainstream media coverage of Olympic boxing, and upon turning pro, the gold medal winners would've received royal treatment from the promoters and TV networks."

"When you have a gold medal when you turn pro, you are talking real numbers," Sandoval said. "Those numbers weren't there when I turned pro. It's not even worth talking about. I would have made better money shining someone's shoes. I used the same trunks I wore in the amateurs and my mom made my robe. She was my tailor."

The boycott also hurt them in ways that were not exactly tangible to a young athlete in the prime of his life. For some, waiting for the 1980 Olympics before turning professional took away four years of potentially lucrative paydays.

Several of the fighters on the 1980 team could have turned pro sooner but opted to wait for the potential fortune that a gold medal would have garnered once they entered the pro ranks.

"A few of them, such as Bernard Taylor and Jackie Beard and Johnny Bumphus, burned themselves out as amateurs," Farhood said. "They fought an awful lot of amateur bouts, and turning pro about two years before 1980 might've served them better than waiting for the Olympic class to graduate."

Ronnie Shields, a former junior welterweight contender and now a top trainer, fought in the 1980 U.S. Olympic trials. He lost in the finals to Bumphus. He feels they all suffered by turning pro too late.

"I had just missed making the 1976 Olympic team," Shields said. "But USA Boxing [amateur program] convinced me to wait around for the next Olympics. They felt I was talented enough to make the team. They told the same thing to Johnny Bumphus and Jackie Beard. But looking back, we all should have turned pro sooner."

The 1980 boycott actually led Shannon to do the same thing -- wait for the 1984 Games. He was 17 years old when he made the 1980 team and while he could have turned pro then, he waited and ultimately made the celebrated 1984 team.

"I don't regret waiting; it was a great experience," said Shannon, who lost in the third round of the '84 Games. "I would have liked the outcome of my competition in 1984 to be different. But not everyone has the experience of competing in the Olympics. I feel glad that I had mine and I feel bad for the guys on the 1980 team who never had that."

Missing the Olympic experience still gnaws at some of the fighters like a pesky jab.

"It bothers me a bit because I figured I had a good chance of winning a gold medal," said Leroy Murphy, a light heavyweight on the 1980 team. "But politics plays a big role in life. I just look at it like, 'God works in mysterious ways.'"

"I missed fighting for my country," Sandoval said. "When you fight for your country, you feel like you are holding a greater responsibility. There's such a respect when you represent your country. You really want to accomplish something."

The members of the 1980 team had mixed success as professionals. Murphy, Sandoval, Bumphus, Donald Curry and Joe Manley all won world titles as professionals. Beard and Taylor twice challenged for titles.

Curry was by far the most successful: he was a two-division world champion and fought frequently on HBO.

Sandoval had potential for stardom. He stopped future hall-of-famer Jeff Chandler to win the WBA bantamweight title and made a pair of title defenses. But in 1986, he was knocked out by Gaby Canizales and suffered a brain injury that ended his career.

Coincidentally, that fight was on the undercard of the Thomas Hearns-James Shuler fight. Shuler, also a 1980 Olympian, was a promising junior middleweight contender who was 22-0 before losing to Hearns. A week after that fight, Shuler died in a motorcycle accident.

"I can't be bitter about the Olympics or more pro career," Sandoval said. "It doesn't accomplish a thing. When it comes to the Olympics, we left what was behind us, behind us. All we could do was march forward. We had to keep training, keep fighting. We had to move on."

And move on they did. But every four years, emotions and memories rise to the surface.

"Even today, sometimes I sit back and think about it," Murphy said. "It's still disappointing."

"Every time the Olympics approach, I feel the disappointment," Sandoval said. "It's not sadness anymore. It's disappointment because I knew I would have fared well. But you can't stay stuck in the past."

Robert Cassidy is a contributor to ESPN.com.