1980 Summer Olympic Boycott (Cold War)


The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan spurred U.S. President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum on January 20, 1980 that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month.


The United States was joined in the boycott by some other countries – including Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada. Some of these countries competed at the Olympic Boycott Games in Philadelphia. Notably, United Kingdom, France and Australia supported the boycott but allowed their athletes to participate if they wished (the U.S.did not) and left the final decisions to participate in the Games to their respective National Olympic Committees and the individual athletes of the countries concerned. The United Kingdom and France sent a much smaller delegation of athletes than usual. Nevertheless, the delegation of the United Kingdom was the largest among Western Europe, with 170 athletes applying to compete. Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland were other principal nations representing western Europe, though Italian athletes belonging to military corps did not attend the Games, due to the government’s support of the boycott, which severely affected many events. Some American-born athletes who were citizens of other countries, such as Italy and Australia, did compete in Moscow.

At the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, athletes from a number of countries, including Australia, Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands,  Portugal, Puerto Rico, San Marino, Spain, and Switzerland, marched under the Olympic Flag, instead of their national flags, a fact that the Soviet TV coverage alternately ignored. Moreover, although the government of New Zealand officially supported the boycott, four athletes from that country competed independently and marched under their NOC’s flag. Altogether, the athletes of 16 countries were not represented by their national flags, and the Olympic Anthem replaced their national anthems at medal ceremonies. As a result, there were a few ceremonies where three Olympic Flags were raised.

Sixty-five countries did not participate in the Olympics despite being invited.

The succeeding 1984 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles, United States saw another boycott, this time led by the Soviet Union. On May 8, 1984, the Soviet Union issued a statement that the country would boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles due to “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States.”  Thirteen Soviet allies joined the boycott, giving a total of fourteen nations that boycotted the Olympics.


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2 Responses to 1980 Summer Olympic Boycott (Cold War)

  1. Igor Baltenkov says:

    Today, thirty years after the 1980 and 1984 boycotts took place, they both are given the U.S.-biased explanation:
    a) the Moscow games were boycotted because of the Soviet invasion to Afghanistan;
    b) the L.A. games were boycotted as a retaliation for the previous boycott, an act of tit-for-tat, potential security problems and outright anti-Soviet hysteria as official Soviet grounds for boycott were merely a decoy.
    I have enough reasons to say that both statements are not entirely correct.

    The Moscow games
    Initially the idea to boycott Moscow was contemplated by the Carter administration already in 1977, long before the Soviet leaders started to think anything about military solution to the Afghanistan problem (actually, in 1977 there was nothing to think about). Only then the boycott basis was thought to be allegedly massive human rights violations in the Soviet Union. We will never know how far the Carter administration was prepared to go with an argument so slim, since a twist of fate in December 1979 gave the U.S. administration a wonderful opportunity to embark on a full-scale boycotting campaign. Nevertheless, to say that hadn’t the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, there would never have been any boycott at all is rather short-sighted. Something of the kind, probably on a lesser scale, could have been expected anyway.
    The boycott did not stop the boycotting countries from numerous special operations during the Olympiad. A family friend, a KGB officer at the time, was with a task force assigned to secure sailing events in Tallinn. Their task force alone caught a diver from West Germany who was trying to sneak into the Soviet territory from international waters. Can anyone imagine an East German diver sneaking into the L.A. harbor?
    And no-one wonders on what grounds the Carter administration, seemingly so anxious to protect human rights outside the U.S., did not allow American athletes to perform in Moscow under the Olympic flag like the ones from the UK (170 athletes, 21 medals with 5 gold, the same amount of gold they won in 1984), France, Italy and other countries, which officially joined the boycott?

    • Thank you for sharing an alternative perspective to these events. Your comments are extremely interesting and thought-provoking. I teach my students to always remember, that history is always told by a bias perspective. Primarily, it is our experiences that shape our interpretation of events, past and present. Thanks again.

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