MOSCOW 2013 – 2
LOOKING BACK: MOSCOW AND THE 1980 OLYMPICS
2. President Jimmy Carter Leads a U. S. Boycott of the 1980 Olympics
Just after Christmas in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Historically, Russia has surrounded itself with so-called “buffer states,” to make invasion of Russia itself difficult. In this instance, the USSR wanted to support an Afghani Communist regime which was facing an Islamic-oriented revolt.
The U.N condemned the invasion, and U.S. president Jimmy Carter called it “the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War.” The Carter administration instituted a trade embargo on shipments of wheat and other commodities to the USSR, and the U.S government also secretly supported the anti-Soviet Islamic Mujahiddeen rebels with hundreds of millions in arms and money.
The administration saw the situation as a chance to embarrass the Soviet Union, score propaganda points in the Cold War, and get President Carter re-elected. As part of this strategy, on January 20 the president announced that if the Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan by February 20, the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics.
Interestingly, nobody in the Carter administration had the foggiest idea of how the Olympics are organized, and not even how the U.S. Olympic Committee works. The assumption was that all the president had to do to effect a boycott was sign a piece of paper.
When the White House found out that the Federal Government had zero official power over whether the U.S. would send a team to Moscow — and that the only way a boycott could take place was by a vote of the U.S. Olympic Committee’s House of Delegates — the politicians got busy. And they played hard ball.
The USOC was threatened with the loss of its charter, and of its non-profit status. Major corporate USOC contributors were told by Washington to withhold their contributions – or else (the “else” included threats of IRS audits of companies and individuals). Australian athletes and their parents received phone calls from the White House urging them not to compete in Moscow. And you can bet there was a lot more bullying we don’t know about.
It was cynical. It was brutal. It was also, in many cases, illegal. And it worked.
On April 12, the USOC’s House of Delegates voted 1,604 to 797 for the boycott. The U.S. government continued to pressure other countries to join the boycott, and eventually another 64 sent no athletes to Moscow.
Interestingly, although the British and Australian governments officially joined the boycott, both their Olympic committees defied the ban and sent teams to Moscow.
Carter lost the election to Ronald Reagan, and the Soviets spent another nine years in Afghanistan. The only effect the boycott had was to prevent a number of good athletes from having a once-in-a-lifetime chance to win an Olympic medal.