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Virgin: Highland Park boycott an Olympic-sized mistake

Today’s column from the Kankakee Daily Journal and The (Ottawa, Ill.) Times

Virgin considers Highland Park boycott an Olympic-sized mistake

The WISCH LIST

May 22, 2010

Craig Virgin has a 30-year itch.

And, right now, Highland Park High School is irritating it.

“I’m uncomfortable because this is way too close to the 1980 Olympic boycott,” the Illinois distance running legend said when asked about Highland Park High’s recent decision to cancel a girls’ basketball trip to Arizona because of the state’s crackdown on illegal immigrants – a controversy that has sparked a firestorm of debate throughout Chicagoland and beyond this month.

Sports, like most things in life, are political. And, for many, politics is sport. But it’s when the two become one in the same that big problems can be created.

Politics, of course, have a time and a place, but is it on an athletic field or a basketball court? This week, in an attempt to answer that question and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of politics on athletes, I sought out Virgin for his expert take on the Highland Park dispute.

“It smells like that [1980],” explained the 54-year-old Lebanon, Ill., native, a three-time Olympic qualifier – but only a two-time Olympic competitor – who knows perhaps better than anyone the scent that can be created when politics and sports are mixed.

Here’s a hint: It stinks.

“And I learned that the painful way,” Virgin said.

Earlier this month, Highland Park Superintendent George Fornero and his fellow administrators rejected the request of the school’s girls’ basketball team – coming off its best season in 26 years – to compete in a tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., in late December. An assistant superintendent initially explained the reason for the cancellation was because the trip “would not be aligned with our beliefs and values.”

However, after several parents questioned if the school was using students to make a political statement opposing the Arizona law, Fornero & Co. attempted damage control and issued a letter to parents that instead emphasized concerns about safety. It stated: “We cannot commit at this time to playing at a venue where some of our students’ safety or liberty might be placed at risk because of a state immigration law.”

The North Shore spat then became national news when former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, speaking last week in Rosemont, accused the school district of using the students as political pawns and urged the team members to “go rogue, girls.”

From his home in downstate Lebanon, Virgin followed the drama and found it to be a disturbing reminder of the 1980 Olympics boycott that altered the course of his career, robbed him of potential glory and countless memories and still chafes him even today.

As a schoolboy star in Lebanon during the early 1970s, Virgin set the national outdoor high school two-mile record of 8:40.9 (breaking the legendary Steve Prefontaine’s record) before enrolling at the University of Illinois, for which won the 1975 NCAA Cross Country championship and then became an Olympic qualifier for the 1976 Montreal Games.

Four years later, in March 1980, the 24-year-old Virgin was at the peak of his career when he became the first (and still only) American man to win the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. Later that month, though, President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would boycott the 1980 Moscow Games because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

Just 10 days before the Olympics began, Virgin ran the second-fastest 10,000-meter race in history, but was unable to compete in the Summer Games.

“I still hope to some day have lunch with Carter and find out exactly what he was thinking,” Virgin said, still fiery. “We could have some sweet tea with lemon and talk about it.”

As for the Highland Park controversy, Virgin said: “This isn’t even a boycott of another country, it’s one of our sister states. I don’t agree with all of what (the legislators) did [in Arizona], but it came through a democratic process. And one hundred some years ago, a lot of our Illinois brothers battled to preserve the Union. Our greatest president from Illinois was Abraham Lincoln and he fought to preserve the Union. I think we need to remember that …

“I think boycotts send the wrong message. It’s not mature. It’s a rash decision, and [in Highland Park] the athletes are paying the price. That’s what makes me uncomfortable. I feel that there’s a time and a place for things and as a leader you have to make tough decisions, but the administration has overstepped their bounds. And, with all due respect, they need to reconsider their decision.

“I believe in taking a stand, and I believe in principles. But we also have a Constitution, and soldiers have died to protect that Constitution and our Union.”

In my book, that’s an opinion you can run with.

  • Karen Fox

    I totally agree with Craig! Sports and politics should never be mixed. Why take it out on the athletes??? These lazy administrators won’t take an initiative and fight the problem on their own.