The Olympic Boycott, 1980

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Final football match, Czechslovakia-German Democratic Republic, 2 August  1980,
at the Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow Olympics



Although the Olympic ideal was to place sport above politics, in reality there were
often political goals and messages promoted through the games


The Olympic Boycott, 1980

Source: U.S. Department of State archive
Boldface and photos supplied

In 1980, the United States led a boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the late 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In total, 65 nations refused to participate in the games, whereas 80 countries sent athletes to compete.

Jimmy Carter: To pressure the USSR to withdraw from Afghanistan the US president threatened boycott of the upcoming Moscow Olympics

Mi-8 helicopter deploys Soviet troopers of the 5th airborne company in Afghanistan

When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan on December 27, 1979, the international community broadly condemned the action. The Soviet intervention in Afghanistan led to an extended conflict in Central Asia, and [President Jimmy] Carter reacted with a series of measures designed to place pressure on the Soviets to withdraw. These measures included a possible boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, scheduled to be hosted by Moscow.

In early 1980, the movement toward either boycotting the games altogether or moving them out of the Soviet Union gained momentum. Calls for boycotts of Olympic events were not uncommon; just four years prior, most of the nations of Sub-Saharan Africa boycotted the Summer Games in Montreal to protest the attendance of New Zealand after the latter sent its rugby team to play against the team from apartheid South Africa. In 1956, several Western European governments boycotted the games in Melbourne over the Soviet invasion of Hungary that year. Although the Olympic ideal was to place sport above politics, in reality there were often political goals and messages promoted through the games.

Melbourne Olympics, 1956: boycotted by West Europeans to protest against Soviet invasion of Hungary

The idea of the boycott gained popularity when Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov called for a boycott in early January. On January 14, 1980, the Carter Administration joined Sakharov by setting a deadline by which the Soviet Union must pull out of Afghanistan or face consequences including an international boycott of the games. When the deadline passed a month later without any change to the situation in Central Asia, Carter pushed U.S. allies to pull their Olympic teams from the upcoming games.

In blue, Moscow Olympics boycotting countries

International support for the boycott varied. Great Britain and Australia were the strongest allies to join the United States in calling for the boycott, although in the end both countries ended up sending athletes to the games. To try to build support for the boycott in Africa, Carter sent American boxer Mohammad Ali on a goodwill tour through the continent to persuade African governments to join. The trip backfired, however, when Ali himself was talked out of his support of the boycott during the course of his meetings. In the end, the closest U.S. allies to join the movement against the Moscow games were Canada, West Germany and Israel. Most of the Islamic nations also joined the boycott, although Afghanistan itself sent eleven athletes to compete. Other nations refusing to send teams to Moscow included Chile, Haiti, Honduras, Paraguay, South Korea, and the People’s Republic of China. Some nations that did not attend the games in Moscow did so for reasons other than the boycott, such as financial constraints.

Spanish Olympic Committee: Spanish athletes competed not under the Spanish flag but under the Spanish Olympic Committee

Within the United States, there was public support for the boycott. Technically, the decision of whether or not to send athletes to the Olympic Games does not actually rest with either the President or the Congress, however; it is the United States Olympic Committee that makes the final determination in such a situation. In the face of such broad support, however, the USOC expressed its willingness to respect the decision of the U.S. Government with regard to the games. While some nations chose to express their displeasure with Soviet military actions by not sending formal teams to compete, but also not preventing individual athletes from attending and competing under the Olympic flag [Spain was among the nations who competed under the flag of their National Olympic Committee. See “Spain Goes to the Olympics with High Hopes but no Flag”.], athletes in the United States were warned that travel to Moscow for the games would result in them being stripped of their passports. In protest, a group of 25 American athletes sued the U.S. Government over the boycott seeking permission to compete, but they lost their case.

Opening Ceremony of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics at the Los Angeles Coliseum, 1984. The Soviets retaliated by getting the communist bloc to boycott the LA Games

In organizing the boycott and rallying support behind it, the Carter Administration had wanted to express the extent of international displeasure with the invasion of Afghanistan, and to pressure the Soviets to pull their armies out of the conflict. In actuality, the Soviet-Afghan War continued and did not end until 1989, and the Soviets reacted to the boycott by retaliating and leading a communist-bloc boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. These Olympic boycotts were just one manifestation of the cooling relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.



The View from the Soviet Side
by Guidepost

On 27 December 1979, Soviet troops invaded neighboring Afghanistan and overthrew the unpopular Hafizullah Amin, self-proclaimed Prime Minister and President of the Afghan Revolutionary Council. The architect of a pro-Soviet socialist state, Amin was responsible for mass torture and atrocities, with hundreds of thousands of people executed or disappearing without a trace.

Afghan President Hafizullah Amin shortly before his assassination

The Afghan government was a Soviet client but even then Leonard Brezhnev, Secretary-General of the ruling Communist Party (1964 – 1982), mistrusted Amin who not only had failed to stabilize Afghanistan but – and recently available archives would back this claim – also that he tended to lean toward the West. The New York Times cites a cable from American diplomat Archer K. Blood who had arrived at the Afghan government headquarters sometime in October 1979 summoned by Amin. In that cable — to Washington — Blood spoke about the possibility that the new Afghan president wanted “a long-range hedge against over-dependence on the Soviet Union.”

“Mr. Blood’s cable,” observes NYT, “suggests that Mr. Amin was open to a realignment that stirred fears in Moscow of another Egypt, which broke from the Soviet orbit in 1972.”

Special Soviet troops attacked the presidential palace and killed Amin on 27 December 1979. Moscow installed the exiled Babrak Kamal in Amin’s place, allegedly to stabilize the country in which, at the end of a decade of war, one million civilians, 90,000 Mujahideen rebels, 18,000 Afghan soldiers and 14,500 Soviet soldiers died. But the bottom line of the Soviet invasion in 1979 was to hasten Afghanistan’s communist revolution in the face of threats from Islamist radicalism, which Amin had failed to prevent despite his harsh rule, and the encroachment of the West.

Tajbeg Palace, where President Amin was assassinated. Photo taken 27 December 1979. Afterwards, the palace would become the headquarters of the Soviet 40th Army in Kabul

The broader context of the Soviet military intervention is geopolitical, Moscow’s fear of the “reversibility of communism” as seen in the fragile Third World socialist states like South Yemen, Ethiopia and Angola. NYT quotes British-American journalist and author of books on the climactic moments of the  Cold War, Michael Dobbs, as saying that “if [the Soviets] lost Afghanistan to the West, they would be losing more than a strategically placed country on their borders. They would effectively be acknowledging that history can be reversed, setting the stage for the disintegration of the entire [Soviet] empire.”

Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev sign SALT II in Vienna, 18 June 1979. At the end of the year, the Soviet Union invades Afghanistan. Carter announces possible boycott of the Moscow Olympics, and SALT II would ultimately be scrapped to give way to the resumption of the arms race

The Politburo was aware that in invading Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would court global backlash, including the end of the detente and the resumption of the arms race between the superpowers, as well as the boycott of the Olympics which was scheduled to be held in Moscow in the summer of 1980.

Soviet Empire up the Sino-Soviet split in 1960. Moscow’s worst fears came true just a little more than a decade of the Afghan invasion. Not only did the empire collapse, the USSR disappeared

Just over a decade after the invasion, Moscow’s worst fears came true: on 26 December 1991, the Soviet empire imploded and the USSR self-dissolved.
 From various sources. Photos supplied.

Related post: “Spain Goes to the Olympics with High Hopes but no  Flag”


>Featured Luzhniki Stadium/Derzi Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA4.0
>Quote marks, PD via Wikipedia
>Jimmy Carter official portrait 1977/Department of Defense Naval Photographic Center, PD
>Mi-8 deploys Soviet troopers/Sergey Novikov, CC BY3.0
>Melbourne Olympics 1956 logo, Fair use
>Map of boycott countries/original PNG by Paasikivi, based on a blank map by NuclearVacuum, CC BY-SA4.0 (Frame supplied)
>Spanish Olympic Committee logo/Spanish Olympic Committee, PD
>LA Olympics opening ceremony/U.S. Air Force/author unknown. PD
>Hafizullah Amin/author unknown. PD via Wikipedia
>Signing of SALT II/Bill Fitz-Patrick, PD via Wikipedia
>Tajbeg Palace/Абрамов Андрей – мой личный архив, CC BY3.0 via Wikipedia
>Map of Soviet empire/user MaGioZal, CC BY-SA3.0 via Wikimedia Commons