Diane Jones Konihowski was once considered one of the top pentathlon athletes in the world. However, she lost out on her best chance for an Olympic medal when Canada boycotted the 1980 Summer Games held in the former Soviet Union. Forty years later, she says she still disagrees with the boycott.
“It was a political situation at the time that hurt many athletes,” says Jones Konihowski, who initially played both volleyball and track at a high level.
“It wasn’t until my third year at the university [that my coach said], ‘Diane, you’re going to have to make a choice here.’ I chose track because I knew that I could control my own destiny and I would get to the Olympics a lot faster than in a team sport,” she says.
After competing in the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 and the Montreal Olympic Games in 1976, Jones Konihowski won gold at the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games.
Jones Konihowski says the win in the pentathlon — which sees athletes compete in the 100 meter, 800 meter, shot put, long jump and high jump — was an important milestone. It made her the highest ranked pentathlete in the world and gave her confidence going into her next Olympics.
“That was just a really good indication that I was on target for what I wanted to do in Moscow,” she says.
She never got that chance. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, many western countries boycotted the Moscow games in protest. Jones Konihowski, who was training in New Zealand at the time, was one of the few Canadian athletes who spoke out against it.
In March, she watched as American athletes visited the White House to do the same thing, hoping to change President Jimmy Carter’s mind about the boycott.
But, a month later, the phone rang as Jones Konihowski was heading out the door to train.
The call was from Corey Elliott from CFRN radio in Edmonton who asked for her opinion on Canada’s decision to join the US-led boycott.
The Canadian Olympic Association had overwhelmingly voted to do so, despite having opposed that boycott initially.
The boycott was also strongly supported by the Olympic Trust of Canada, the association’s principal funder.
“Of course, I spoke honestly and openly about how wrong it is,” Jones Konihowski says. “I wasn’t in Canada at that time, and I wasn’t being brainwashed by the media. I felt it was wrong. It didn’t prove anything. And, really, the athletes were the only ones that were being penalized. Boycotts don’t prove anything, at the athlete level anyways. We’re just there to compete in peace.”
Jones Konihowski says the use of athletes in this way was hard to understand, especially since the United States only called for the boycott after the Winter Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York, earlier that year.
“Had they really been serious about hurting Russia they would not have had them at their games,” says Jones Konihowski.
Moreover, she says “sport was not a priority” with the Canadian government at the time. “So why suddenly did they go along with it?”
While remaining steadfast in her opposition to the boycott, Jones Konihowski, and her husband John faced backlash for her criticism, something that affected both their careers.
“My sponsor called me the [day after the phone call] asking me to retract my statements. I said I couldn’t based on principle. He withdrew his financial support and sponsorship of me,” Jones Konihowski says.
John Konihowski, who was a wide receiver for the Edmonton Eskimos at the time, was also villainized by the public.
“He got it on the field. He was called a communist. The Eskimos’ telephone board lit up. Hugh Campbell (the Eskimos’ head coach) at the time stuck up for me because they were wondering why the Eskimos would hire the husband of a communist,” she says.
Despite not being able to be part of a Canadian team, Jones Konihowski was still invited by Moscow’s organizing committee to compete under the Olympic flag but ultimately decided against it.
“It was very unheard of at that time. We’re now seeing athletes march into the stadium and compete at the Olympic Games without a flag,” says Jones Konihowski. “At that time, you represented your country and you represented your flag.”
She also says she was concerned for her safety, having received death threats and hate mail, which she didn’t read, but her husband did.“Boycotts don’t prove anything, at the athlete level anyways. We’re just there to compete in peace”
“Honestly, I don’t know that I would have gotten out of this country alive,” she says.
While Jones Konihowski didn’t get her Olympic medal, she did win two gold medals that year. The first was at the Liberty Bell Classic for track and field athletes held in Philadelphia just a few days before the Olympics.
“Boycotts don’t prove anything, at the athlete level anyways. We’re just there to compete “Boycotts don’t prove anything, at the athlete level anyways. We’re just there to compete in peace”
-Diane Jones Konihowski
However, she says this event didn’t mean much to her and her competitors.
“It was a very big deal for the U.S. media, but meant nothing to any of the athletes in any of the sports because the best in the world weren’t competing. For the athletes, it is always about having the best athletes to compete against,” she says.
Two weeks after the Olympics, she also beat all of the Moscow medalists in a pentathlon in Detmold, Germany.
Following her retirement from competition, Jones Konihowski remained involved in sports for many years, holding many different positions, including being the Chef De Mission of Canada’s Olympic team for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
The role as the head of Team Canada gave her a greater appreciation of everything that goes into sending a national team of athletes to the Olympics.
“There’s more of an appreciation of what goes on behind the scenes to make sure that everything is as perfect as it can be for our athletes to compete at their best,” she says.
She stepped away from sports in 2010 when she chose not to seek re-election for the board of directors of the Canadian Olympic Committee, where she had been a member since 2005.
“I’m a firm believer in new blood and getting new athletes involved in the process,” she says.
She also knew it was time to move on.
“I’d been doing sports since I was five, and when you’re in sport, you almost kind of put your life on hold to do what you want to do in sports, whether it’s being an athlete, volunteer, or coach,” she says.
“I had some job opportunities and career opportunities that were really interesting to me. I had a lot of skills and I was just looking for something different and new and something that was very inspiring.”
“It’s been fun. I look back on my life and I go, wow, I’ve done a lot and I really enjoyed every job that I’ve done.”
Jones Konihowski is currently the director of fund development and communications at the Calgary Distress Centre.
“We’re an agency that saves lives every day. That’s meaningful to me. And I’ve got a whole new appreciation for the work that our volunteers do to save lives,” she says.
The Distress Centre is an important resource for new Canadians who might be struggling with English, as its 24-hour phone line offers services in 200 languages.
“So if they’re struggling, and need information, if they need help, and they speak Tagalog, or Hindi, or Punjabi, or Mandarin, or whatever, they can call us,” she says.
“That’s huge for me.”
- By Bill Atwood