07 July 2018

What If George Mount Had Gone To Moscow?

If you are "of a certain age," as I am, you might remember a recurring Saturday Night Live sketch called "What If?". It was a sendup of talk shows that presented counterfactual historical events.  Perhaps the most famous of them was "What If Eleanor Roosevelt Could Fly?"

Since then, the internet has opened the door to all manner of "alternative history" sites and discussion boards.  Some are, of course as far-fetched (in some instances, without trying to be) as SNL's segments.  But others pose some really serious and interesting questions. For example:  What this country (and world)  be like had Franklin Delano Roosevelt had kept Henry Wallace as his Vice President in 1944 and not allowed Democratic party bosses throw him under the bus in favor of Harry Truman?

Now, this post is not going to ponder anything quite as earth-shattering as that.  Instead, I am going to pose a question that entered my mind after reading an excerpt from Daniel de Vise's The Comeback:  Greg LeMond, the True King of American Cycling, and a Legendary Tour de France.  In it, de Vise discusses the racing scene that developed in and around Berkeley, California in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when cycling was a fringe activity in the US.

A decade later, one of the first world-class male American riders since World War I would emerge from that milieu.  He would finish his career with 200 victories in amateur and professional races. But it was a sixth-place finish that really set the stage for the generation of American riders--which included LeMond--that would follow.

When George Mount finished three places behind the medal-winners in the 1976 Olympic road race, it was by far the best showing by an American rider since Carl Schutte won the Individual Time Trial bronze medal (and the US team won the bronze for the Team Time Trial) in 1912.  In the six-plus decades since Schutte and his teammates ascended the podium, no American rider or team had placed in the top 60 in any Olympic competition.

George Mount, circa 1974

Mount's victory in Montreal was broadcast all over the world.  It was the first time in decades significant numbers of Americans paid attention to bike racing.    Some European scouts took notice of him, too, and soon he found himself racing with an Italian club.  In his early 20s at the time, he seemed destined for greater successes--including a medal at the 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow.

Except that he didn't get the chance to go to Russia.  In response to the Soviet Union's December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, US President Jimmy Carter declared a boycott of the Games.  Other countries would also decide not to send their athletes to Moscow that year, though some for other reasons.  

Though he has never said as much, it's hard not to think that the missed Olympic opportunity was at least one reason why Mount decided to turn professional that year.  He would enjoy success on the European racing circuit, and expressed no regrets when he retired from racing just before turning 30.  Still, it's fair to ask whether spending another year or two as an amateur--and winning an Olympic medal--might have aided him in his development.  Would his continued successes created momentum that American cycling could have ridden (if you'll pardon the expression) well beyond LeMond's victories?

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