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From the file

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

Slow Newscast

Boycott! The lost Olympics

Boycott! The lost Olympics

With human rights groups demanding a diplomatic boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing, we look back to Moscow 1980, and ask what’s the lesson of the most notorious Olympic boycott in modern times?


Transcript

[Clip from the opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics] 

Basia Cummings, narrating: There’s a ceremony going on. 

It’s 19 July 1980.

In the middle of a giant stadium, with 100,000 people cheering from the stands, a group of men in Russian traditional dress are dancing in a circle.

The ground beneath them is covered in this lurid green carpet, which is made more lurid by the neon quality of the footage, which is now about 40 years old. 

And to be totally honest, the whole scene is hard to describe without the help of psychedelic drugs. 

Because soon, concentric circles of gymnasts are dancing around a circular platform in the middle of the stadium. And there’s probably around 500 of them. 

The crowd is going wild. 

And then a load of men wearing white unitards come out. 

And yet it gets weirder. 

Because then more dancers emerge, and they make a giant blooming flower with their bodies. 

It is utterly surreal. And spectacular. 

And all of this, this celebration of Russian culture, is the opening ceremony of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games.

A moment of Soviet celebration on steroids, in more ways than one. 

Because these were no ordinary Olympics, if such a thing exists.

“Today the Olympic movement faces its biggest crisis in its 86 year history.”

News clip from 1980

I need to rewind. Back to the beginning of the ceremony. 

To that moment when the athletes from all seven continents emerge onto the track and walk, parading their national flags, signalling their intent to compete. 

Except, in 1980, well, there were a few countries missing. 

America, China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada, they all boycotted Moscow’s Games. 

Several other countries, including the UK, sent substantially smaller teams than they would’ve usually.

Why?

Well, politics had collided into sport, and it seemed that politics might have won.

I’m Basia Cummings, and in this Slow Newscast, I’m going back to 1980, to tell you the story of a myth – of the purity of sport, and how that myth crashed into a great ideological battle between east and west, capital and communism. 

The story of the lost games. And what it tells us as we gear up for a new fight about the political power of the Olympics.

So my first job in journalism was actually on a cycling magazine. I was a sub, and mostly I checked for spelling mistakes, and each month I’d get sent a stack of articles about the greats of the Tour de France and the Giro D’Italia, and about new bikes and kit and new riders.

And it was then, in my early 20s, that I really fell in love with these stories – these great dramas from sporting history – and all that wild ambition and pain and yes politics of it all. And, of course, the absurdity which is always a key component. 

And it’s a love that’s shared by Simon Barnes.

Simon Barnes: Hello. I’m Simon Barnes. I work as a writer, I’ve been writing about sport for several hundred years. I’ve worked for the Times for a number of years, covered loads and loads of major events, seven summer Olympic games. 

Basia, narrating: And I wanted to speak to Simon because the Olympics are in his blood now. He’s been intoxicated by them.

Simon: You know the Olympics is the best of the best of the best. And if that doesn’t inspire you, then you don’t have the sporting spirit in your veins. It’s an absolute peak experience.

Basia, narrating: He’s witnessed some of the most memorable Olympic moments from the last four decades.

Simon: Michael Johnson, winning the 200 meters in Atlanta in 1996. 

[Clip of Michael Johnson winning gold in both the 200 and 400 meter]

Simon: Fu Mingxia winning gold medals in the diving.

[Clip of Fu Mingxia winning gold for diving] 

Simon: Beijing, where there was a fellow called Usain Bolt.

[Clip of Usain Bolt winning gold for 100m, creating a new world record]

Basia, narrating: But I wanted to talk to Simon about an edition of the Games that he didn’t cover as a journalist. 

It’s one that he watched, as a normal punter, on his TV with his family. 

Moscow, 1980. 

The concept of Olympism was created more than 120 years ago by a man called Pierre de Coubertin.

Coubertin was something of an idealist – he thought, quite simply, that you could make the world a better place by sport.

And as he was planning the modern Olympics in the 1890s, and writing an Olympic charter, he wrote that the Games are “a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind.”

Olympic principles, he said, were about social responsibility, and about a respect for universal fundamental ethics – non-discrimination, humanism, and solidarity. 

And over the decades since, since those principles – and that charter – have been upheld that the Olympics are supreme, that they operate above something so base as politics.

But in 1980, the 19th modern Olympics, and the first to be held behind the Iron Curtain, well, these were mired in 47 years of tension and paranoia and proxy conflicts. 

And from where Simon was sitting, and from, really, where anyone in the west was sitting, Russia were the baddies. 

Simon: You only have to watch James Bond to work that out. It was our gang and their gang. The world was split right down the middle. It was a madness to which we were accustomed, in which we saw every sign of continuing for the foreseeable future. 

Basia, narrating: And in December 1979, the atmosphere shifted. From cold, to if not hot, then at least a lot hotter.  

[Clip “50,000 heavily armed Soviet troops have crossed the border and are now dispersed throughout Afghanistan.”]

[Clip of gunfire and tanks rolling]

Basia, narrating: On Christmas Eve, Soviet troops crossed the border into Afghanistan, where a civil war was raging between communist forces and the mujahadeen. 

The Soviets invaded under a political doctrine that had been shaped by Leonid Brezhnev, the leader of the Soviet Union, which stated that a threat to socialism in any of the Soviet-bloc nations was a threat to all, and so justified military intervention. 

And this Christmas intervention, well, it was a miscalculation. The West did notice. 

And no one more so than Jimmy Carter – the president of the United States. 

By this point he had been in office for almost three years and he couldn’t afford for this invasion to go unchallenged. 

Which is where the Olympics comes in. 

Simon: Jimmy Carter, President of the United States wanted the Olympic games cancelled. The Olympic games is not a national political organisation and declined to do so. The Olympic games get its power from holding the games. So you’re not going to get them voting themselves out by not holding the games. So that was a non-starter. He then tried to get them to help shift the games, that would have been a major political decision and would probably have him involved with lots of nations leaving the international Olympic association. And so that was not going to happen either. So having attempted those two things, all he could say is, well, you know, if I can’t cancel the party or move the party, I shan’t come to the party.

[Clip of Jimmy Carter “I’ve sent a message today to the United States Olympic Committee, spelling out my own position. That unless the Soviets withdraw their troops within a month from Afghanistan, that the Olympic games be moved from Moscow to an alternate site or multiple sites or postponed or cancelled.”]

As pressure mounted, he announced a boycott. 

[Clip of Jimmy Carter “And I have notified the Olympic Committee, that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.”]

And this sort of political posturing, it wasn’t unusual in the Olympics. 

In 1948, Japan and Germany were banned from the London Games because of the small matter of World War 2.

And Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq boycotted the Melbourne Olympics in 56 over the Suez crisis.

In 76, around two dozen predominantly African countries boycotted the Montreal games.

But what was different this time, in 1980, was the scale of the political intervention. 

The Americans had never missed an Olympics before, not even when it was being held in Nazi Germany.

But now the Games were caught in the middle of the world’s two superpowers – and a new proxy war was about to be fought, not on the track or in the pool, but on the sidelines.

[Clip of Jimmy Carter “Entire villages have been wiped out, deliberately, by the Soviet invading forces. I can’t say in this moment what other nations will not go to the summer Olympics in Moscow, ours will not go.”]

And, of course, while all this was happening, athletes were in the final stages of preparing for their pinnacle sporting moment – the day that they would be testing themselves against the best in the world. 

Craig Beardsley: My name is Craig Beardsley. I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but I’m actually 60 years old now, although I feel like I’m still in my thirties. And I was a serious competitive swimmer back in the day. 

Craig is just full of joy. His enthusiasm is infectious, the way he talks about swimming tells you everything you need to know about how he became as good as he did.

Basia: And so when did you start swimming? How old were you when you first started swimming?

Craig: When we moved to New Jersey, I joined a summer league team and it was quite prevalent out here, quite a lot of small towns have summer clubs where you have counties and win ribbons and that’s where I really kind of got my first taste of swimming and I will have to say my very first coach was a gentleman named Tom Stanley, he was a Marine and he was just a wonderful man. 

And, you know, he would have us swim laps while he would do 200 push-ups on the side of the deck. And he was the one that actually taught me how to swim butterfly by tying rope around my ankles and having me move my hips up and down, of course you can’t do that today, but back then it was acceptable, but you know, he instilled a love of the sport. For me swimming and the pool was a place for me to push myself to my own limits, to grow as an individual and to test myself.

Basia, narrating: Craig was a young swimmer coming into the Moscow Olympics. Although he was recording fast times in the 200-metre butterfly, he still had a lot to prove – both to himself and, in his eyes, the world.

Craig: You want to test yourself, right? And at the end of the day, the Olympics, maybe not so much today, but back in the day was the platform to compete against the best and show, you know, what you were made of. And I think ultimately every athlete wants to do that to see how far they can push themselves.

Basia, narrating: Back then, news travelled slowly. 

Craig: You know, in the very beginning, when there were rumors about a boycott, no one thought it was going to happen, nobody really thought something like that was going to happen. But you also have to remember back then it was a different world, right? I mean, there was the Iran hostage crisis, we were still in a cold war, Russia was the Soviet Union. I think as a 19 year old in the beginning I supported it. I thought, okay, this is what our country wants, I should be an American and do the right thing.

Basia, narrating: But it wasn’t that easy. Craig had been training for years for this moment. 

And in fact, just a month before the Games was due to start, he’d set a new world record of 1:58.21 seconds in the 200m butterfly. 

He was surely, surely, on track for a gold in Moscow. 

Until Jimmy Carter made that announcement. 

Craig: I remember kind of being in disbelief, and maybe still with the hope that someone might come in at the last minute and change that decision. And we could go again. I think especially, it was hard because if you recall, the 1980 winter Olympics were in Lake Placid and we had just come off probably in America, United States, one of the greatest sporting achievements, ever the ‘miracle on ice’, right? Where we had these amateur hockey players knock off the Soviet Union professionals. And I saw what that did for this country and what it did for all the athletes here and how it just kind of really got people excited. And then to go from that high, to this absolute low, just kind of amplified this whole feeling of emptiness that we all had. You know, we wanted to try to go to the Olympic Games. There was an underlying message that you were unpatriotic.

Basia, narrating: While the president couldn’t dictate the decisions of individual athletes or the governing body, the USOC, he was able to exert significant political pressure on them to align with him. 

And, well, it worked.

Craig, just months away from competing, was told, you’re not going.

And it wasn’t just him.

He talked about Tracy Caulkins, also a swimmer – a three time Olympic medallist by that point. 1980 could have been her year and she had the potential to win up to seven medals. That’s the stuff of legends. Numerous other American athletes were in the same boat.

But Carter didn’t want the boycott to be limited to the US. 

He was relying on his western allies to fall in line. He even sent Mohammed Ali on a tour of African countries, to try and lobby them to support the boycott. 

And that’s where us Brits come in. 

Because Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister at the time, she supported Carter. 

Simon: Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister for about a year, was very serious in her attempts to back up the boycott, which was led by the American President, Jimmy Carter. And she was very keen as a novice Prime Minister to say, you know, we’re best friends with America. However, the British Olympic association is not a government organisation and crucially it’s not dependent on the government funds in order to carry on existing. And it doesn’t need government approval to do what it wants to do, like take part in the Olympic Games. And when Thatcher attempted to establish a boycott the BOA already decided it was about libertarianism rather than about nationalistic politics. And therefore it was a matter for the individual or at least for the individual sports organisation involved. 

Basia, narrating: It was a painful split. A pressure weighing down the athletes who had trained for years to get to this point. 

This is Joslyn Hoyte-Smith. 

Joslyn Hoyte-Smith: My name is Joslyn Hoyte Smith, and I competed in two Olympic Games. I ran the 400 meters and the four by four relay. Got a bronze medal, which I’m really happy about. I wasn’t at the time, but I am now!

Basia, narrating: Joslyn moved from Barbados to the UK when she was seven years old.  

Joslyn Hoyte-Smith: Well I came to England when I was about seven years old and I went to a school in Leeds. And I found Britain very strange because I didn’t like wearing shoes. So it was really tricky going to school and having to wear shoes. But I started running and I could beat everybody at school. And I remember Mr. Adamson saying to me, you’re going to be a good runner.

Basia, narrating: Joslyn didn’t really think that much about running at first, she wasn’t that serious about it. 

But when she went to secondary school, she started to struggle – she was dyslexic but she didn’t know that back then. Her PE teacher – who was also her maths teacher – began to help her after school and also got her involved in running. She started winning school prizes and soon she was running for England. 

And as a young Black girl in a predominantly white school, who lived up north while all the main competitions were down south, she began to see sport as a way of opening doors to her.

Joslyn: I remember watching the Olympics and watching Valery Borzov, he was a Russian athlete, and I had a picture of him on my wall. He was in my eyes the brilliant sprinter, absolutely brilliant sprinter. And when I got chosen for the Olympic Games, it was something unbelievable. People around me were really proud and really pleased. And I remember traveling to collect my kit. I remember keeping it close to me cause I didn’t want anybody to take it in the house. It’s a really strange feeling to be selected for the Olympic Games. And it’s a really strange feeling when you’re in a community with other people that are doing the same thing as you, regardless of the competition, regardless of the event, it’s a massive, massive family. And there’s a feeling of tremendous support.

Basia, narrating: Don’t forget that for people like Joslyn, in 1980, they were amateurs. It was far away from the sleek professional set ups that you see in major athletics today. Joslyn had a job, and running was more like a serious hobby for her.

And against the backdrop of rising political pressure, these athletes also had to contend with losing money if they went. Some of them were risking their jobs. The policeman and shot-putter called Geoff Capes lost his job as a result of his decision to go to Moscow and didn’t even get a medal for his sacrifice.

These weren’t household names protected by commercial partnerships, they were really on their own out there.

Joslyn: The government didn’t want us to go as a team representing Great Britain, but a number of athletes, including myself, we’d worked hard. And I know through growing up about apartheid and sports and various sort of things. But I’d set in my heart that I was going to go and I had the opportunity to go and I was determined to go. But before I went, I had to have an interview with my boss and it was the social services in Sheffield. And I was told I was given a list of things that I shouldn’t do when I got to Moscow. 

And I laugh now when I think about it. One of the things I was instructed to do is not to sleep with anybody in the country. Not to exchange any money in that country. And there was a list of things and I thought, well, I wouldn’t do them anyway, in whatever country I went to, not just Moscow!

Basia, narrating: But not everyone felt the same. 

One equestrian, a show jumper, believed it was the right decision not to go.

Simon: I spoke to Lucinda Green, Lucinda Prior-Palmer as was, I asked her if she felt any regrets about not going to Moscow – she would have been in a serious chance of a medal, quite probably a gold – and she said no regrets at all. The idea of Russia, Soviet troops being in Afghanistan, made it just impossible for me to go to Moscow. I didn’t consider it and I’ve never regretted it for a second.

Basia, narrating: In the end, there were four sports that listened to Thatcher. Hockey, shooting, sailing and equestrianism. 

So, on the 19th of July, 1980, the Soviets held the opening ceremony at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. On a hazy, smoggy day.

And sure enough, a significant number of athletes were missing. 

Basia: And how many countries in the end did join the boycott?

Simon: 80 nations took part. It was the smallest turnout since 1956. There were 66 boycotting countries and another 15 who took part but competed not under their own national flags, but under the Olympic flags. One of those was Great Britain.

Basia, narrating: There’s this incredible film, the official film made in Moscow to celebrate the games. It’s called possibly the most Soviet name that you could give it – Oh Sport! You Are Peace! And in its own slightly warped way, it dealt with the controversy at the start

Simon: I can think of visual images – that bloody bear that’s cheerful, smirking Misha the bear, trying to tell us that it was all absolutely lovely, when it all absolutely wasn’t lovely.

I remember, up goes the red flag with the hammer and sickle again, there goes Soviet Anthem, there we go again. But also I remember where there was real competitive sport in there, and that was in the athletics arena. And of course it was between the British athletes, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett and their tussle over the 800 and the 1500 meters was one of the duels for the ages.

Basia: And tell me, did the Olympics, did that Moscow Olympics feel noticeably different when you were watching it, when you were watching different competitions, different events, did you feel that something was different?

Simon: There was an oppressive feel about it that came even on the television and even with the BBC boosters doing the commentary and partly it became, you know, what a surprise the Soviets have won another gold medal and now we move over to the shooting and the Soviets have won another gold.

I mean, one of the exciting things, the most important thing, about sports is that you don’t know what’s going to happen next, and at the Moscow you did. And that was rather oppressive

Basia, narrating: And Moscow felt different for some of the athletes who had actually made it there. 

Sharron Davies: So I’m Sharron Davies, Olympic silver medalist in swimming from 1980, but was in the 76, 80 and 94 Olympics competing and Tokyo for me would be my 12th Olympic games consecutively, either working or swimming basically. 

Basia: Wow. Gosh, that’s a lot of Olympics.

Sharron: It is.

Basia, narrating: Sharron Davies, a team GB swimmer, was only 17 at the Moscow Olympics but as you just heard by this point she was already a pro. She’d already been to Montreal in 1976 aged just 13. Moscow was a whole different experience.  

Sharron: I mean, yeah, it was a difficult Olympics, there’s no doubt about it. There wasn’t a lot of colour. I remember being on the underground there wasn’t a single piece of graffiti. The place was absolutely spotless, we had not a lot to keep us entertained in the Olympic village. They had put on these most wonderful ballets and concerts, but for a bunch of teenagers, I’m not sort of going to go to a Mozart concert or a Tchaikovsky reading or whatever. They were much more interested in something more modern, of course, but that wasn’t what Russia were famous for or were offering at the time.

So it was difficult. Silly things, Colin Moynihan, who is now Sir Moynihan, Lord Moynihan, he was the Cox in the eights. And I remember the guy stapling a tinfoil gun to the inside of his bag. When we came through security and the rest of us, knowing this was going to happen, and then him being held up by a load of Kalashnikovs. So that was our entertainment, one day. The food fight in the halls, again it was back to entertaining ourselves. 

Basia, narrating: And so that was the backdrop. But, of course, the thing about sport at this level is that, of course, in the moment, in the moment of competition, all of the political stuff melts away.

As soon as Sharron reached the pool, as soon as Joslyn hit the track – the rest, it just didn’t matter. They were going to do what they had trained for their whole lives.

Basia: So, tell me about your 400 meter silver win. 

Sharron: Oh gosh, well, I was the only non communist in the whole final. So there was 12,000 people in the stadium who all happened to be Russians, apart from a very few, including my dad who was there. Given a chance to stay in the toilet right before the competition because the nerves were extraordinarily high I probably would’ve done, it’s one of those weird things, isn’t it? I’m trained to do that, so the moment that gun went and the race began you go into automatic mode and you race. 

Basia: What were you hoping for on the track?

Joslyn: I wanted to get a personal best achievement. And I wanted to make an Olympic final. I wanted to say that I’d done the very best that I could have done in whatever circumstances there were. And I think I did that. I know I did that. 

Basia, narrating: Sharron Davies won silver. And Joslyn Hoyte-Smith won bronze in the 4x400m relay.

The story that really fascinated me though, was Craig’s. 

Having broken the world record just a month before the Olympics started, Craig did something else extraordinary. 

After a Russian called Sergey Fesenko won gold for the Soviets in Craig’s event, Craig smashed his own world record, again, 10 days later.

It was more than a second faster than the time Fesenko had swam to win the gold.

I mean, how painful is that? He couldn’t compete, but he knew he was faster. 

Basia: Tell me, have you ever spoken with Sergey Fesenko, the guy who did win the gold?

Craig: Yes. So, I have to say, this is an interesting point about the Olympics right, not only Sergey Fesenko, I’m going to take a broader approach to this, the Soviet team being there in 1980, they were denied the opportunity to swim against the best people in the world as well.

Sergey Fesenko, I know he and I would have wanted to swim against each other. And listen, I was faster in my trials, but that doesn’t mean anything. Who knows what would’ve happened if I went to Moscow.

Basia: But with the benefit now of hindsight, do you think that the boycott worked, do you think that a message was sent to Russia? 

Craig: No, absolutely not. The boycott was just a futile attempt of waving our flag, right? It was useless. And again, it created another boycott in 84, and I guess the important lesson that we can learn is these things really don’t work, so let’s not ever do it again.

Basia, narrating: Craig told me in our really delightful interview – genuinely one of those conversations that you leave feeling more optimistic and more hopeful about life and about people – he said that he often was asked one simple question. Would he rather hold the world record, or an Olympic gold medal? 

And he says, actually that’s an easy question to answer. The world record is undoubted – you are the fastest person. Not just on that one day. But everywhere. 

But he admits that it’s not without sadness. Because those principles that are enshrined in the Olympic charter that outline a set of values, in the athletes, those values become a kind of identity.

Craig: Here’s the thing with the boycott over time. As you probably are aware, the IOC does not recognise us as Olympians. The USOC, the US Olympic committee does. So we’re kind of in this lost zone. We don’t really know who we are and this is all of us, not just the Olympic swimmers from 80, but all the athletes from 80. We’re not really sure who we are. I mean, I’ve been to events where people have said, outright to me, you’re not an Olympian.

No one’s looking for any pity, it’s one of those things that happened. Maybe the best thing that we can derive from it is to just share the story so it doesn’t happen again. You’re never going to get rid of politics in sports. But again because of the Olympics, we are talking about things going on in other countries that we might not have talked about. So it gives us a platform at least to have a discussion. And that was the problem with the Olympics. You’re not even there, you don’t even have the opportunity to have a discussion. We don’t really want to have that happen. 

Basia, narrating: It would be natural for someone like Craig who missed out on their one shot of Olympic glory to look back on the 1980 boycott with a sense of frustration. Craig went on to miss out on the 1984 team and retired from swimming shortly after. He now lives in what looks like an idyllic corner of the mountains in Pennsylvania. Things, I think worked out Okay for him, he’s definitely a glass-half-full kind of guy. 

But there’s no doubt that there was harm in the boycott. Athletes suffered – but the question is did the Soviet Union? 

Jules Boykoff is a former football player and now an academic. In 2016 he published a book called Power Games: a political history of the Olympics.

Jules Boykoff: So for the politicians of the time, looking back, it’s pretty hard to see that it really changed anything in terms of the Soviets behavior.

I mean, I know looking back at the media coverage at the time, Vice President Mondale was sounding a bit like a drama junkie, to be honest, he was saying things like “the future security of the civilised world hangs in the balance.” Those are his words about the civilised world. In reality, it really didn’t.

I mean, the world just kept tick-toking along. From the athletes perspective, what it really did was it just engendered a lot of bitterness on the part of numerous athletes from the United States where I’m coming to you from. There are still Olympians around the country who are extraordinarily bitter about being deprived of their opportunity to participate in those games. And so I think that’s really contributed to the general idea that with boycotts, it’s really athletes who tend to lose. And so I guess you could say in the many ways of looking at it, it was a bit of an epic fail, the boycott. On the other hand, you could say, and I think this applies to all boycotts, that for people that really were true believers, that a country like the Soviet Union shouldn’t host the Olympics, they at least got to stand in their own beliefs and stand true to them. I mean, I don’t want to dismiss that possibility, there were perhaps some symbolic victories out of it, but in terms of the material money shuffle not so much.

Basia, narrating: Jules is more articulate than I am – and he’s right it’s the symbolic and the material. That’s what we’re talking about here. An act can, of course, have symbolic power, if not material power. And so the success of a boycott depends on which metric you’re using. 

It seems clear that the boycott didn’t have a political, material impact. The Soviet Union continued, for another 9 years. 

But it did have symbolic power – after all, we’re still talking about it. 

And it continued – this tit for tat symbolism. 

Four years later, it was America’s turn to host the Olympics. And, inevitably, the Soviet Union returned the favour. 

[Clip of news archive “Good evening, the Soviet Union will not be taking part in the 1984 Olympic Games to be held in Los Angeles. And it’s expected that most of the eastern bloc will follow suit. The Soviet accuses the United States of using the Games for political purposes.” 

At least fourteen countries from the Eastern Bloc fully boycotted the 84 Games. 

Simon: It had an impact in so far as the fact that Soviet Union and their allies, 50 nations in all, had a boycott and that affected some of the events, gymnastics in particular was a much poorer event without the Soviet gymnasts in sporting term.

But also, it was quite obviously a tit for tat boycott. It was just so obviously playground, I think the whole world rolled their eyes and said, well, what are we doing? What are we doing? This is supposed to be sport. We’re supposed to be testing the best athletes against each other. What is the point of it if we say, actually we’re not going to send them. They’re not allowed to go.

Basia, narrating: And this podcast hasn’t just been a trip back to a rather fascinating moment in Olympic history for the sake of it. 

The question of participation matters today. Right now. 

[Clip of Andrew Marr “can I ask you why people are kneeling blindfolded and shaven, and being led to trains in modern China? Why, what is going on there?”]

[Clip from CBS news “ One year from today, the winter Olympic games begin in Beijing, but there are calls for countries to boycott those games. A coalition of 180 human rights groups is urging governments to not send their delegations over reported human rights abuses in China.”]

Tokyo 2020 might just be weeks away and for now, that’s where most people’s attention is focussed. But I think the question is Beijing 2022 – the next Winter Olympics. 

It’s the first time a city will have hosted both Summer and Winter Olympics but it’s not the first time that questions have been raised about China’s record on human rights, and whether awarding it such a huge prize – the role of host city, is appropriate given the revelations of devastating human rights abuses being perpetrated against the Uighurs in Xinjiang. 

Jules: I’m actually as a side note writing a short book on the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Germany and some of the very same arguments and tropes from 1936 are happening in 1980 for these games.And then again, in 2022 with the Beijing Olympics, as talks of boycotts heat up there. 

Basia: So just talk me through the same set of questions that you see repeated. 

Jules: Yeah, well, it always starts with the athletes and the argument is always that it’s really the athletes who get hurt. Second point is almost always that sports shouldn’t get involved in politics. I think you can tell from my tone that I think that’s really just a pipe dream. And also that it won’t do any good, so there’s this sort of efficacy argument that, hey, if we miss these games, it’s not even actually gonna change anything. I’d say those are some of the major strands in arguments.

Basia: Just talk me through the argument around the 2022 Beijing Olympics because I suppose, there was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing where there were questions around human rights and about the broader political situation. Now we know more about the situation in Xinjiang changing with the Uighurs. Talk me through how those arguments have developed since 2008. 

Jules: Well, I think you’re really smart to go back to the 2008 Olympics as a starting point because before those Olympics in 2001, when Beijing was vying for those games, the deputy mayor of Beijing said that if Beijing were allowed to host the Olympics, it would help improve democratic practice in the country, it would bring around a human rights heyday and the International Olympic Committee bought that hook line and sinker and handed those Olympics to Beijing. Well, unfortunately, nothing of the sort happened. In fact, if you listen to Sophie Richardson, who’s the China director at Human Rights Watch she argues that actually the 2008 Beijing summer Olympics were a catalyst for further abuses. It was a way of test driving surveillance systems. In fact, selling some of these surveillance systems to countries around the world. And so, at the second time that Beijing rolled around and was applying for the Olympics, this is in 2015 going for the 2022 winter games, this time the International Olympic Committee should have known that what they were told back in 2001 never came to fruition. And yet the International Olympic Committee voted for Beijing to take those games. 

Basia, narrating: Jules made a really important point while we were talking – and one that I think often gets forgotten. 

When Beijing won the 2022 Winter Olympics there actually weren’t that many other options on the table for the IOC. Most of the cities that might have been more obvious or easy choices had dropped out – Munich, Oslo, Stockholm. 

Only Almaty in Kazakhstan and Beijing were left. Neither of those is famous for its commitment to democracy.

Jules: I mean, in the United States right now, I think it’s fair to say that China has become sort of a bipartisan punching bag. And I think it’s something that we need to be aware of as we walk toward the Beijing Olympics, it’s just all too easy for politicians on either side of the aisle, Democrats or Republicans, to make all manner of claims about China, some of which are true, some of which are not really, another source of fight back against maybe hosting the Olympics in Beijing is human rights groups. I have much more respect for their position generally because they’re evidence driven arguments around the things that are happening with human rights. And, you know, they argue that essentially, if you look at the Olympic charter that guides the actions of the International Olympic Committee, there are all sorts of amazing ideas about freedom and universal notions of what’s fair. And it’s not what’s happening in Beijing. And so the argument from those human rights groups is just a clash of principles. The International Olympic Committee charter says one thing and what we’re seeing in Beijing and China more widely is very much another.

Basia, narrating: And so the question is: what should the international community do about it. 

Jules makes the point that governments often try to use the Olympics as a way to publicly launder and improve their reputation and image. 

They get diplomats from around the world coming to shake their hands, they can look respectable and organised by running a good Games. It is the definition of good geopolitical PR. 

Jules:  Basically, there’s this concept of sports washing, which is the idea that governments use sporting events to try to launder their international reputations on the global stage. In other words, if you’re a human rights abuser and you can host one of these big events, you can look really important. You can announce the opening of the games, you can have all these diplomats come from around the world and shake your hand in front of the cameras. And that actually lends an air of legitimacy. So sport washing is very much under pressure lately from human rights groups and activists around the world and trying to stop the benefits of sports washing.

You know, I would also say that I feel like a lot of times sports washing is thrown at countries like China or Russia, but I think it can also be thrown at places like the United States, which is hosting the Los Angeles Olympics in 2028. And look at the United States Guantanamo Bay hosts numerous people from around the world who’ve been sitting there for years upon years without charges. We’ve got people at the border living in cages. We have in Los Angeles itself this sort of humanitarian crisis in plain sight of homelessness. And so hosting the Olympics in Los Angeles can be a way of diverting attention away from those horrific humanitarian crises in your own town, even if you’re not necessarily considered an authoritarian regime.

Basia, narrating: And so given that, a boycott is a way to avoid that. 

It avoids giving a sense of legitimacy. 

But that might be it. And on the other hand, participation, inclusivity, well those might be stronger forces for change. Just think back to that moment with Jesse Owens at Hitler’s Olympics. 

Simon: Hitler held the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a celebration of Nazidom. What’s it remembered for? The triumph of Jesse Owens. We can remember the triumphalism in Riefenstahl’s films of it, the star of that film, the star in history is the Black runner who’s hand was not shaken by Hitler. 

Basia, narrating: So the story of Moscow is, in hindsight, a story about a myth. 

And how it was, perhaps, finally dismantled. 

The myth that sport is pure – that it can operate outside the grubby reality of politics.

The Olympics are a moment of grand political theatre, where the issues of the day are concentrated the world wars, black power, the suez crisis, apartheid, the clash of east versus west, they have all been articulated in sport by sport. 

In Beijing in 2022, the same will be true at a time when the unthinkable has happened – where talk of concentration camps has returned, and of an attempt of a wholesale eradication of a group of people, through re-education, separation, and torture, an all-too-familiar question hangs in the air: what will the world do? 

Next in this file

The missing and the triumphant

The missing and the triumphant

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

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