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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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
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