Jamie MacFarland has had 34 years to reflect on the consequences of mixing sports with politics, and his feelings haven’t changed much.
It was in January 1980 when MacFarland, a Latham native, learned that his dream of competing in volleyball in the Summer Olympics, held that year in Moscow, would not come to fruition because President Jimmy Carter announced that all U.S. teams and athletes would boycott the Games due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
“I was upset, but not from the perspective that it was so clearly wrong, as either a political or sporting decision, but more because I felt the two shouldn’t mix,” said MacFarland, currently deputy supervisor for the town of Glenville. “It seemed like there was no real reason to mix the two, and I would still feel that way.”
Next month, the Winter Olympics will be held in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 7-23, marking the Games’ return to the now-defunct Soviet Union for the first time since the 1980 Moscow boycott. While Russia and its leader, President Vladimir Putin, have come under attack for the country’s anti-gay policies and repressive government, MacFarland is happy that U.S. athletes on this year’s team won’t have their dreams dashed the way he did.
“The problems of politics and international relations seem to be larger than any sporting competition,” said MacFarland. “I understand the reasons why you might think about a boycott because there are only a limited number of things you can do without going to war. If there’s something you can do to help a situation, and I think Nixon’s Ping Pong diplomacy toward China is a good example, that’s good, but I think most everyone understands that the 1980 boycott was not the right means to an end.”
MacFarland says the current worldwide political situation doesn’t seem a whole lot different from the way it was in 1980.
“The irony should not be lost on people in the U.S.,” he said. “The Soviets were in a quagmire in Afghanistan in 1980, and we seem to be in that same kind of quagmire. Clearly, some of the circumstances are the same.”
It was Jan. 20, 1980 when President Carter announced that if the Soviet Union didn’t withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. would boycott the Summer Olympics in Moscow later that year.
“It was pretty sudden when the announcement came out,” remembered MacFarland. “That was it and there wasn’t anything we could do. There was no reason for the U.S. team to be training in Dayton [Ohio], so all of our activities pretty much came to an end.”
MacFarland’s dream of playing Olympic volleyball began in 1978. After developing into what most people in volleyball circles would regard as the best player to ever come out of the Capital Region, MacFarland ventured to the open Olympic tryout for the men’s volleyball team in Dayton. A friend, Dave Maggs, now deceased, convinced MacFarland to join him at the Olympic tryouts in an attempt to earn one of the few spots left on the U.S. team.
“Dave was my inspiration, really, and that year we dedicated ourselves to training to get ready for the tryouts,” said MacFarland, who performed with the Schenectady YMCA as well as a club team named Co-Sun. That team was made up largely of players who, like MacFarland, had played for the University at Albany’s club team. “I had played volleyball around the East Coast at a very high level, and Dave told me about the tryouts and thought we should do it.”
More than 100 hopefuls showed up. MacFarland was one of just two players selected for the team. While he never got to achieve his Olympic dream, there were plenty of great memories with his stint on the national team.
“We played other national teams for almost two years, and I got to travel to a number of countries in Europe,” said MacFarland. “We also played in Japan and in Cuba, when nobody was going to Cuba. That was one of the highlights.”
The U.S. men’s team in 1980 didn’t automatically receive a berth in the Olympics, but MacFarland liked their chances.
“We were only ranked 14th in the world, so there was a qualification process that we had to go through, but we had a real good shot at making it,” he said. “We were in close contact with the women’s team, which was favored to win a medal, so when the announcement was made it was a bit more crushing for them. They easily could have won the gold. We hadn’t yet qualified but we felt like we were going to and it was certainly disappointing to hear we wouldn’t even get the chance. It really let the air out of our balloon.”
MacFarland’s volleyball career began as a fifth-grader at Southgate Elementary School in the North Colonie district.
“We would actually compete against other elementary schools, and for me something definitely clicked,” he said. “I liked it immediately, I was good at it immediately, and if you have the ability to jump, you can be pretty effective.”
Jump is something MacFarland could do like few others. When he was playing on the Shaker High varsity, his athleticism so impressed Guilderland’s Mike Sardella, a Section II volleyball official, that he recruited MacFarland to play for the Schenectady YMCA team as soon as his high school season was done.
“I recognized his athletic ability right from the start,” Sardella said of the 5-foot-11 MacFarland, whose vertical jump has been measured at 44 inches. “We were so impressed we chipped in and gave him some money to attend a volleyball camp down near New York City. He had an amazing vertical jump and great quickness. When he tried out for the Olympic team, we knew he had a good chance. He was a great all-around player.”
His jumping ability made him a devastating spiker, according to Schenectady’s Larry Matura, who along with Sardella played with MacFarland on the Schenectady YMCA team.
“He was a skinny little guy who would jump right of his shoes,” said Matura, recalling his impression the first time he saw MacFarland play. “He was clearly the best player around here. He was quick, his reactions were amazing. He was at another level than the rest of us.”