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From the file

Boycott! The lost Olympics | What’s the lesson of the most notorious Olympic boycott in modern times?

The missing and the triumphant

The missing and the triumphant

Tuesday 27 July 2021

Hundreds of athletes didn’t get the chance to compete in the 1980 Olympics, their dreams crushed under the wheel of global politics. This is what it meant then – and means now


The connection between the Brezhnev Doctrine and showjumping is not obvious, but it was enough to divide the world in 1980. The Brezhnev Doctrine, formulated by the former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, states that a threat to socialism in any one Soviet-bloc nation is a threat to all, and so justifies military intervention; vide Czechoslovakia, 1968. Showjumping is about riding horses over a course of jumps in an arena; it’s all about related distances.

The Soviets invaded Afghanistan on 24 December 1979 under the Brezhnev Doctrine. They did so in the belief that the West wouldn’t really notice because it was Christmas, that it would be all over by the following Christmas and, anyway, the world’s attitude to the Soviet Union would be softened by the Olympic Games. Wrong on all three.

Leonid Brezhnev (in the centre) and Soviet ministers visit the Olympic rowing channel

The invasion was the start of a Cold War Proxy War. And, once begun, it made the 1980 Olympic Games a political event. That’s because they were to be held in Moscow – the Soviets were planning a Games to leave the world in awe.

Jimmy Carter, then president of the United States, didn’t want the world to be in awe of anything that came out of Moscow. He tried to have the Games shifted to another venue. He tried to have them cancelled altogether. When neither ploy worked, he demanded a boycott of the Games by athletes from the USA and its allies. Most leaders of pro-American nations went along with this (certainly, Margaret Thatcher did, by then prime minister of Britain for about a year). The upshot: when the Games took place, 66 nations boycotted them.

In the US, protestors march against the Moscow Olympics

But now, as it turned out, Britain. On 17 March 1980, the House of Commons debated the issue of a boycott for seven hours and voted 315 votes to 147 in favour. But they had overlooked an important point: the British Olympic Association wasn’t under their control. It is not a government organisation. And the BOA decided that it was an issue for the individual; or at least for the individual British governing bodies of the Olympic sports.

Only four sports decided against competing: hockey, shooting, sailing and equestrianism – which includes, of course, showjumping. The rest decided it was an issue of old-fashioned libertarianism, a traditional aspect of Conservative thinking.

“Every kind of political pressure was brought on us not to travel,” recalled Dick Palmer, then general secretary of the BOA. “But we believed that every citizen has the right to leave these shores and return.” He added: “If it had not been for the fact that the BOA raises its own money and is independent of government, we probably wouldn’t have gone.”

Dick Palmer in Moscow, 1980

Britain’s track and field athletes took part in a memorable series of competitions. But the shot-putter, Geoff Capes, a policeman in his day-job, was refused paid leave to participate. He went anyway, tipped for a gold medal. His disappointing fifth place cost him dearly.

Douglas Hurd, then a junior minister in the foreign office, was given the job of dissuading athletes from going. He received a letter from the then sports minister Hector Monro, explaining that “athletes believe they are being singled out by the politicians as a means of attacking the Soviet Union whilst the same politicians permit the business of trade and commerce to continue as usual.”

Lucinda Green competes in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles

Not all athletes agreed. The equestrian Lucinda Green, already with four victories at the famous Badminton House Trials (she went on to win two more) would have been a serious contender for a gold medal with her horse Village Gossip. She said: “Moscow was an absolute no-no for me. I didn’t see how the free world could go and play games in Russia’s back garden when they had just rolled their tanks into Afghanistan and taken it over.”

Allan Wells, the British sprinter, took another view. He received “half a dozen” letters from the British government asking him not to go. One included a picture of a dead Afghan girl with a doll. Wells said: “A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming, I’m not going to shoot somebody’.” In the end, Britain sent a team of 219 – 149 men and 79 women – who took part in 145 events in 14 sports.

But for many athletes from other countries, these were the Lost Olympics: and for that matter, the Lost Careers. The whole point of the heartland Olympic sports is that the Games are the summit. You have to get it right on one day in four years, and what you do on that day will forever define you.

Anita DeFrantz, now vice-president of the International Olympic Committee, pictured in 1980

Anita DeFrantz had won a bronze medal for the United States in the rowing events of the 1976 Games in Montreal and was hoping to win “a medal of a different colour” in Moscow. But she, along with all the other athletes from the USA, was forbidden to take part. “Nobody knows us,” she said. She is now vice-president of the International Olympic Committee.

Craig Beardsley set a world record for 200 metres butterfly that year – ten days after the race in Moscow, in which he couldn’t take part. Don Paige had run the fastest 800 metres in the world that year and would surely have been in the mix in that remarkable race at the Olympic Games, of which more later. But he had to say at home. He has never watched the race that did take place.

Yasuhiro Yamashita, now president of the Japanese Olympic Committee and a central figure in the current Games, was a top judo fighter. He was forbidden to take part in Moscow, and that probably cost him a gold medal; he won gold in Los Angeles four years later.

Yasuhiro Yamashita on his way to a gold medal in the 1984 Games

In the United States, 466 athletes had trained – trained for hours daily, for year after year – in order to compete at the Olympic Games. They were not allowed to go because there were Soviet troops in Afghanistan. Some of them sued the United States Olympics Committee; they lost.

The Games went ahead without them; 80 nations took part, the smallest turn-out since 1956. At the opening ceremony, 15 of these nations marched behind the Olympic Flag rather than their own national flags. Palmer marched for Britain – alone – while the athletes stayed in the village.

“It was a joyless Games,” said John Goodbody, who has covered every Olympic Games since 1968. “People came to watch and cheer for the home side, as usual, but I felt that they were doing it as a matter of duty. It was a complete contrast to Sydney [2000] or London [2012]. The security was tough, but not excessive. And it all worked, everything was on time, the transport arrived. But among the visitors there was an anti-Soviet feeling throughout. On the plane back, the pilot announced that we had now left Soviet airspace – everybody cheered.”

The Soviets took exception to the Daily Mail journalist Ian Wooldridge, who had mocked their security system for its incompetence. The Soviet vice-president Vladimir Popov said: “If it or other stories were found to insult the dignity of the host, Soviet organisers will appeal to the IOC to take the most decisive measures against the journalist involved.” The British chef de mission, Sir Denis Follows, responded: “If he or any other journalist is expelled, I shall withdraw the entire British team from the Games.” Wooldridge stayed.

Britain’s Daley Thompson during the javelin event of the decathlon at the 1980 Olympics

British people remember the Moscow Games best for the athletics. Daley Thompson won gold in the decathlon, Wells won the 100 metres, and there were the two great races involving the British athletes Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe. Coe, favourite for the 800 metres, ran a pig of a race and Ovett won. But in the 1500 metres, Coe ran the last bend in the manner of the angels and won. His moment of victory– arms spread as if crucified, face showing incredulous joy – is one of the classic images of sport.

A series of incidents detracted from Soviet splendour. It was reported that, during the javelin, the main doors at the end of the stadium were opened for Soviet athletes, closed for the rest, in order, it was claimed, that the resulting headwind would give added lift and greater distance to Soviet spears.

There was a poisonous row at the gymnastics. In 1976, the Romanian Nadia Comaneci was the star of the Montreal Games, winning three golds and recording seven perfect scores of ten. In Moscow, in the all-around competition, the most prestigious event, she was marked down in favour of the Soviet athlete Elena Davyadova – and her coach Bela Karolyi, made a famous scene.

Nadia Comaneci with her teammates at the 1980 Olympics

The most significant stat from the Moscow Games is the number of positive drugs tests: for the only time since 1968, there were no positive tests. Not one. In other words, it was a drugster’s free-for-all, later nicknamed “the chemist’s Games”.

The Soviet Union won 195 medals, 80 of them gold; East Germany were second with 126 and 47; Bulgaria were third with 41 medals, eight golds; Britain finished ninth with 21 medals, five golds. The athletes of another 66 countries finished with nothing: for them, even failure was forbidden. John Whitaker of Great Britain and his brilliant horse Ryan’s Son were not allowed to take part in the showjumping, and so were unable to compute the related distances between Moscow fences.

And what was achieved? The fact is that sporting boycotts have never achieved anything. (The banning of South Africa from all international sport was a different tactic, and that did work, eventually.) A boycott of any one sporting event harms the boycotter more than the boycotted. As a tactic, it’s like giving your irritating neighbour the finger; it won’t make him move elsewhere. The Montreal Games of 1976 were boycotted by 29 mostly African nations because New Zealand had sent a rugby team to apartheid South Africa; apartheid stayed in place until 1994. The Los Angeles Games of 1984 had a tit-for-tat boycott from the Soviet bloc and its allies; 14 nations stayed away. America did not fall as a result.

Soviet troops remained in Afghanistan for nine years; perhaps as many as two million Afghans were killed. The war has been called the Soviet Vietnam: like the Americans in that country, the Soviets discovered that a guerrilla war in difficult country against determined opposition is impossible to win. The Afghan campaign was a contributing factor to fall of the Soviet Empire in 1991.

Margaret Thatcher delivers a speech during a visit to the White House in 1979, watched by Jimmy Carter and his wife

For Carter and Thatcher, the Moscow Olympics represented personal failure. For both, it came from a failure to understand: 1) the nature of the Olympic Movement, and 2) the nature of sport.

The basic facts of the Olympic Movement were spelt out by the then French sports minister Jean Pierre Soton: “The Olympic Games are not organised by the governments but by the IOC, which chooses a city and a country.” Ultimately, the Olympic Games are beyond the control of governments. (The French finished eighth in Moscow with eight golds.)

The IOC and the national Olympic committees in every country of the world tend to be run by former athletes, people who value sport more than politics, even if it’s a damned close-run thing. Coe, now Lord Coe, was responsible for both securing and then running the London Games of 2012. “Had I not gone in 1980 it would certainly have been seized upon and exploited by rival cities,” he said. He was more loyal to sport and his own sporting ambitions than he was to politicians and his own political ambitions: a quarter of a century later, that decision was a great benefit to both sport and his own country.

Dame Kelly Holmes and Sebastian Coe show off the medals that will be used in the London Olympics

Thatcher’s failure to deliver a boycott was a failure to exert soft power: power by influence and persuasion. Coe said: “My gut instinct was that there was an intellectual dishonesty about what we were trying to achieve. History proved us right, of course, because four years later when we went to Los Angles for the 1984 Olympics, the Russians were still in Afghanistan and the boycott had no impact.” It’s unlikely that a British boycott of Moscow, bringing the boycotting nations up to 67, would have tilted the balance.

Thatcher not only misunderstood sport, she misunderstood people’s attitude to sport. Even the Daily Mail opposed the boycott, saying that it was “intolerable that this government of all governments – a government that abhors Communist serfdom – should now seek to make British athletes jump to the Tories’ bidding by what is no more or less than a crack of the Soviet totalitarian whip.”

A boycott is all about what politicians like to call “sending a strong message” – that is to say, looking tough while risking nothing. The boycott’s one undeniable achievement was the blighting of the lives of athletes in 66 nations. Meanwhile, trade and commerce continued.

Britain’s Allan Wells wins the final of the men’s 100 metres during the Moscow Olympics

When will there be another major boycott? When China annex Taipei, perhaps? Will Muslim nations boycott the Winter Olympics in Beijing in 2022 because of the Chinese treatment of the Uighurs? Will the summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028 be boycotted because of whatever overseas adventuring the USA is involved with at that time?

Perhaps politicians will look at future Olympic Games and once again decide to emulate Peter Cook, in a famous sketch for the revue Beyond the Fringe: “I want you to lay down your life, Perkins. We need a futile gesture at this stage. It will raise the whole tone of the war.”

But it’s just possible that the position of sport as a global phenomenon has changed with the advances in commerce and communications. Sport is of major importance to many multinational companies. Sport now reaches a global audience of billions, and the great sporting events bring them all together. Is sport now too powerful to be closed down by mere politicians?

That was certainly the implication of Yamashita’s words as he discussed boycotts and the Tokyo Olympic Games that are now upon us: “It is important to communicate the value of sports to the country and its people so they will understand it. The sports world [back then in 1980, etc.] did not have the power to do that.”

But it does now.

Perhaps.