Hank Johnson, the U.S. Army boxing coach who last week was prohibited by the Defense Department from participating in the Goodwill Games, said he was not happy about the last-minute decision, but "if the man says we don't go, I must support that."
Johnson, in Washington, D.C., to coach the Fort Bragg (N.C.) team in this week's Mayor's Invitational amateur boxing tournament, and nine military boxers were not allowed to go to Moscow to compete.
"I couldn't believe it," said Johnson. "I honestly could not believe it, because it was such a late thing. I was wondering why somebody in the military didn't come talk to me to confirm it."
A spokesman for the Defense Department said Johnson and the nine boxers were not allowed to fight in the Games because the U.S. military "cannot support or participate in commercial ventures." The spokesman, Bob Prucha, also said the U.S. government was not reacting to the Soviet Union's exclusion of Israel, South Africa and South Korea from the Games.
When asked why the decision came a few days before the Games, Prucha said, "That was a problem. That's just the way it happened by the time everything came into place."
Robert Helmick, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said the armed services, being a member of the USOC, acted improperly in making the decision without discussing it before the committee.
"The USOC has an interest because we are charged by an act of Congress Amateur Sports Act of 1978 to support athletes that compete," Helmick said. "One of the prime reasons was to have a body that solves confrontations with itself. It's unfortunate that this question didn't come up at a board meeting.
"Not only are they interfering with the athletes' right to compete, but they are interfering with others who would have been chosen in their place. Our system has failed the athletes. I think we have an excellent system in use, but it wasn't utilized. Somebody in the Defense Department decided to go public before he understood what the ramifications would be."
Helmick said he was concerned that "other nations will see this as unwarranted government intervention."
Helmick said he has heard nothing from the Defense Department on the decision. "Obviously, we want to talk with an armed services representative, and the athletes certainly need an explanation why a little-used regulation was invoked, and why it came so late," he said. "It was a complete surprise to us."
Johnson, who brought four of the banned boxers -- Derrick Wilson, Runnel Doll, Anthony Hembrick and Wesley Watson -- to fight in the Mayor's Invitational, said as a soldier he has to accept orders.
But, he said, "What I finally understood is that they have a regulation saying the military personnel were not to be used in the profits of a privately owned organization. . . . If that's the case, that means we can't even compete in the Olympics, because that's going to be televised. We can't compete in the World Games. We can't compete in the World Cup." The Goodwill Games are cosponsored by Ted Turner, chief executive of Turner Broadcasting System, and the Soviet Union.
Without Hembrick, Watson, Doll and Wilson, the U.S. team in Moscow is minus some of the country's finest fighters. Doll (125 pounds), Hembrick (165) and Watson (super heavyweight) are American Boxing Federation national champions. Wilson (147) is the ABF national runner-up.
When team members were told last Thursday, Johnson said their reaction was "disbelief."
"They were heartbroken," he said. "They had trained very hard for this competition because they were going against the world's best and in their homeland. But by being soldiers, we can react or adjust to any situation."
For the four boxers now in Washington, the Goodwill Games were an opportunity to fight internationally for the first time.
"I accept it," Watson said. "But I kind of want an explanation why they did it. Why can that guy go over there and I can't? I don't think they will ever explain it."
The Mayor's Invitational began Tuesday night and the finals are scheduled for tonight at Howard University's Burr Gymnasium.