John Whelan: Chatham, An Olympic Venue

“You can’t always get what you want

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometime you find

You get what you need.”


Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones wrote the song in 1969 and recorded it as part of the album “Let it Bleed.” The song was originally released as the B-side of “Honky Tonk Woman.” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” became the much more popular side and was one of the most popular songs of the Rolling Stones.

My reference to not always getting what you want is about the 1980 Summer Olympic Games and what happened just about 40 years ago. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 24, 1979. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev sent the Russian 40th Army to Kabul, killed the Afghan president, and installed a Soviet loyalist in his place. The Summer Olympics were scheduled to be in Moscow in about seven months. President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter to the U.S. Olympic Committee proposing that the Olympics be moved from Moscow if the Soviet Union failed to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. The Soviets refused and in March, President Carter decided to boycott the Olympics. He also encouraged other nations to join the boycott. Some 60 countries supported the U.S. and joined the boycott. Seven additional European countries chose not to participate in the opening ceremony, including France and Italy.

The Moscow Games Opening Ceremonies took place on July 19, 1980 and just 80 nations marched in the ceremonial entrance to the Olympic Stadium. American television coverage was canceled, depriving the Russians of more than $350 million in revenue and thus leaving the Games with a huge financial loss. The 80 countries were the smallest number since 1956. The Soviet Union dominated the games, winning 80 gold medals and 195 total medals. Competition was limited and, overall, the Moscow Olympics were a big disappointment.

The Soviet Union continued to fight in Afghanistan against the mujahideen in a guerrilla war until 1989. The mujahideen were supported financially by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in what was, in effect, a “proxy war.” In 1989, the Russians withdrew after concluding that Afghanistan was a quagmire and that war there might never end.

The Chatham connection to the Moscow Olympics was Tom Howes.

Tom grew up in Chatham and attended Northfield Mount Hermon where he became a rower. Tom went on to Harvard where he continued as a rower. When he was a sophomore, Tom had the #7 seat on the 1976 crew which was undefeated and won the end-of-season collegiate regattas. After graduation, Tom was a member of the 1979 Pan American Games team and decided to compete for the 1980 Olympics as part of a quadruple scull. His quad scull qualified for the 1980 Games and they planned to row in Moscow. And then, Jimmy Carter and the boycott eliminated the opportunity to participate in the Olympics. It’s true, you can’t always get what you want.

Tom graduated from Harvard in 1978 and now lives in South Orleans with his wife, Kathy. Kathy was also an accomplished rower. She competed to row in Moscow, but was one of the final cuts from the team. Tom works for Delphi Construction as director of business development. He is well suited for the job since he is the son and grandson of well-known Chatham builders. Tom told me he had enjoyed his time at Northfield Mount Hermon and Harvard in addition to enjoying his rowing career. Tom is planning to attend a reunion of his rowing friends at this year’s Head of the Charles Regatta in October.

Chatham did eventually have an Olympian when figure skater Todd Eldredge qualified and competed in the Olympics three times. As many of you know, Todd enjoyed a phenomenal figure skating career. He won the World Championship in 1996 and won the U.S. National Championship six times. Todd did not fare as well in the Olympics, but is known for his lengthy stay at the very top of U.S. figure skating. At the 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Todd was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Todd was a great champion and it is remarkable that Chatham produced such a significant athlete. Todd now lives in Irvine, Calif. with his wife, Sabrina, and their two sons. Todd retired from competitive skating in 2002 and joined the Stars on Ice Tour. Todd continues his skating connection by offering private figure skating lessons in California. Todd has been particularly charitable to the Special Olympics and also to Chatham and its recreation program.

And now going back to 1980, Chatham did not take the Jimmy Carter cancellation of participation in the Olympics sitting down. A group of friends at a party were discussing the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Games. They decided the only proper course of action was to stage Chatham’s own Olympics. In what was actually less than half an hour, extensive plans for a Chatham Olympic Games were developed. It was decided that it would take place in June at the field behind the Chatham Bars Inn tennis courts. There would be an opening ceremony with teams parading around the field. Each team of five participants were to wear their national team uniform and prepare a national food for lunch. It was expected that each team would enter a team kite in the kite competition. There would be running events, and possibly, swimming events, three-legged races and croquet. Judges would determine the medals and there would be a closing ceremony.

Eric Hartell was chosen to write the letter to the public inviting participation. A very clever letter was sent out and 21 teams responded positively. The Chatham Games were most aware of the enormous expense of fielding a real Olympic team so the entry fee was capped at $5 or $1 per member. Teams were formed and the only requirement was that it be three men and two women or vice versa. Chatham buzzed with excitement. Elaborate plans were made for costumes, food, flags and kites. The rule was that the first entry officially received could claim their country of origin. Among the entries were Cuba, Greece, France, Italy, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. A group of elderly entrants chose the country of Georgia where life expectancy is the longest. Transylvania entered as did Puerto Rico, Lesotho and Poland. The flags were colorful and the kites most creative.

Teams arrived and the opening ceremonies with the parade of teams was spectacular. Head Judge Lillian Byrne felt the water and immediately called off the swimming competition to the relief of all. Richard Sullivan served as Lord R, Chatham’s version of Olympic head Lord Killanin of Ireland. The Chatham Olympics proved to be one of the best parties in Chatham history with stories for the participants to last a lifetime.

I guess it is true. You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you get what you need.