When the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed, those who would have known just how the New Zealand team felt were the athletes selected for the 1980 Moscow Games.
Their dreams were shattered 40 years earlier by a boycott – and 34 of those Kiwi athletes never got the chance to compete at another Olympics.
In the first of a three-part series on the fate of some of those athletes, this is gymnast Rowena Geisreiter’s story.
Kiwi gymnast Rowena Davis was only 14 when she got to fulfil a dream of competing alongside Nadia Comaneci – at the 1979 world championships in Fort Worth, Texas. She even gifted the Olympic champion a Māori doll.
“There were some pretty big names, huge names competing. It was the Nadia Comaneci era,” remembers Davis, now Geisreiter. “But we were just from little old New Zealand, so we didn’t consider we could be part of the next Olympics. I didn’t even know I could qualify at the world champs.”
Known for her consistency in competition, Geisreiter performed well and discovered she’d qualified New Zealand a spot at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Her next challenge was to get selected for the New Zealand team. “There was a wee bit of ‘who’s going to go?’ I had to keep being consistent and keep staying on top,” she says.
Winning was something Geisreiter had aimed for ever since joining Dunedin’s Athlon Club, aged seven, after her school gym teacher Pat Broad suggested she had a future.
“I loved it from the beginning. I was runner-up in my first competition and thought: ‘Next time I have to win’. I must have had a competitive spirit right from the get-go,” Geisreiter says.
Win she did, rising to become the New Zealand artistic champion. She won a bronze medal at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton as one of the four-strong New Zealand women’s gymnastics team.
But competing at the Olympics had never been on her radar until she unexpectedly qualified in December 1979.
The same month, while Geisreiter and Comaneci were landing somersaults, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. In retaliation, US President Jimmy Carter and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.
That led to New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon pressuring the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association to join the boycott. But they resisted, announcing a team of 99 athletes, including Geisreiter.
Thinking she was going to the Moscow Olympics, Geisreiter jetted off to the United States for three months to hone her routines at the SCATS Gymnastics Club.
“My parents committed to the cost of sending me to the States. At that stage it was all go,” she says. “But the Americans were leading the boycott and definitely weren’t going. I began training at SCATS, but people there kept saying, ‘You shouldn’t go’.”
Pressure for New Zealand to join the boycott intensified, with word reaching Geisreiter in the States. “It was on again, off again, ‘yes you’re going’, ‘no you’re not’, ‘yes you are’,” she says. “That was the hard part, not knowing what was going to happen.
“The end result was I could go independently, but if I did, New Zealand Gymnastics would never get any more government funding. So it was basically blackmail.”
In the end, only four New Zealand athletes competed in Moscow – modern pentathlete Brian Newth, the team’s flagbearer, and canoeists Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker.
With her Olympic dream in tatters, Geisreiter came home only to find herself returning to the States, for an international invitational organised for nations boycotting the Olympics.
“I probably didn’t focus too much on missing the Olympics at the time because there was another trip – to the ‘fake Olympics’ in America,” she recalls.
“Then, weirdly, there was a trip to Moscow for the next world champs, competing against the Olympic gymnasts in the Olympic stadium. I remember thinking: ‘What? We can go there now?’ It just didn’t make sense.”
Determined to get to the next Olympics in Los Angeles, Geisreiter committed to another four years of training, and qualified once again. But this time she was up against tougher New Zealand selection standards.
After 14 years of gymnastics, Geisreiter was gutted when she wasn’t named in the 1984 New Zealand Olympic team. An argument was put forward that she’d missed out on the Moscow Olympics and trained intensively for an extra four years.
“There were submissions, pleas and resubmissions, but the selectors wouldn’t budge,” she says.
“Their standards were pretty unreasonable for gymnastics. I wasn’t going to be good enough for them if I didn’t have a chance of a medal or a final.
“It was a kick in the guts. You’re the best in your country and that’s not good enough…. I thought ‘what’s the point’, and then I quit. It was more devastating than missing out on the Moscow Olympics.”
Geisreiter recalls how alone she felt. “I couldn’t commiserate with other people. I just wrapped it up and put it away somewhere because no one really got it. People would say, ‘Oh well, at least you got as far as you did’. No one else understood. I guess if you were in a cycling or rowing team, at least you had the whole team to share it with.”
The full impact didn’t hit until much later, at a team reunion 30 years on. “I realised I was one of the ones who’d never got the opportunity to go to the Olympics. I was in this special category of those who’d totally dipped out and then I was really angry,” Geisreiter says.
“I hated politicians after that. Politics should not have interfered. What the heck has politics got to do with sport?”
At the 2010 reunion, athletes selected for the Moscow Olympics were formally recognised by the NZOC. Geisreiter remembers how upset many still were.
“There were people crying and telling stories about bomb threats to try and stop them from going; even people getting their letterboxes blown up. I never knew any of that because I was 15 and didn’t understand the whole political involvement,” she says.
Geisreiter feels for today’s Olympic athletes disrupted by Covid-19. “It’s probably worse for them because I had another event to focus on. For them, they might be going, or they might not. Some don’t know when they can next compete overseas, and there are no audiences for those who can. At least I knew exactly where I stood.”
Her advice to Tokyo Olympic hopefuls? “If you’ve got that goal, you have to go with it, focus on it and work towards it. If it doesn’t happen there’s obviously going to be disappointment. But you’ve just got to bite the bullet and say: ‘Yes we’re going, so let’s do what we have to do’.”
Forty years on, missing out on the Olympics is not something Geisreiter thinks much about unless someone reminds her. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh bugger’. If I sit and watch the Olympic ceremonies it sets in, but it’s not something I dwell on,” she says.
“I kept on being active. There’s no point in sitting around wondering. I do a lot of cycling now and race at a local level and really enjoy that for what it is. I’m grateful for the skills and ability to focus. I just use them somewhere else now.”
Geisreiter is a bike coach in Dunedin, conducting cycle skills programmes in schools and coaching mountain biking. “It’s actually very much like gymnastics. It’s balance, coordination, timing, strength and body weight,” she explains.
Four decades on, the disappointment of missing out on the Olympics has never entirely gone away.
“It was a big thing, but it was out of my hands,” Geisreiter says. “Going to the Olympics is an opportunity that not many people get – and I could have but didn’t. I didn’t get the blazer, but I got the patch that goes on it.”