Why did the US Boycott the 1980 Olympics?

Culture | January 20, 2021

Left: US President Jimmy Carter discusses the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, suggesting a US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Right: a scene from the closing ceremony in Moscow. Sources: Leif Skoogfors/Corbis via Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons.

The United States' boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, decreed by President Jimmy Carter, left a hole in the history of sports -- but why? Elite American athletes didn't get to compete with the best from the rest of the world, many of wore the colors of the Soviet Union and the initialism CCCP. Carter, a touchy-feely president by any standard, made a hard decision based on Cold War politics, and it left the American sports community, and regular sports-loving Americans, devastated.

Because the Olympic games function like music or puppies: something we can all band together and love, regardless of politics or where we call home. Unless, of course, you are talking about the 1980 Olympics. Jimmy Carter’s decision came on the heels of Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and the attempted coup to establish Babrak Karmal as president.

His polarizing decision to boycott the Olympics threatened to reignite the Cold War that had begun to thaw in the late ‘70s. Obviously, American athletes who trained like fervent monks to prepare for the games were crestfallen over his declaration. Here’s the history of that momentous adjudication. 

A Tempting Thorn Bush

The media initially went with the boycott but the tide slowly turned. (rt)

For many decades, the Middle East has represented a honeypot populated by overwhelming dangers. Whether it was the Soviets in the ‘70s or America for far too long, many countries have attempted to take advantage of the region’s most coveted resource: oil. When Soviet tanks rolled in December 1979, Carter and his staff felt compelled to respond without reigniting the Cold War.

The White House was split. Vice President Walter Mondale saw it as a win all around, asserting a boycott “could capture the imagination of the American people.” Mondale failed to realize a boycott probably wouldn’t be as enrapturing as the Olympics. On the other hand, CIA director Adm. Stansfield Turner disagreed, arguing that the Soviets would play the sympathy card as an aggrieved party. There was also the possibility that other countries, including U.S allies, wouldn’t support the boycott and create international tension. 

Boycott Response

Naturally, the Soviets turned around and boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. (rt)

It’s worth noting that the United States competed in the 1936 Olympics, which was held in Nazi Germany, after the Germans began instituting anti-Semitic policies. Jessie Owens spoiled Hitler’s Olympics by dominating track and field to the tune of four gold medals. The Fuhrer had planned these games to be the coming-out party of his tyrannical regime. 

In the age of television, the Olympic Games have become a showcase for the host nation, with performances during the opening and closing ceremonies that highlight cultural wonders and convey geopolitical relevance or power. The pageantry includes the spectacle of athletes from all over the world parading in front of the host nation's leaders.

Julian Roosevelt, an American member of the IOC, and Al Oerter, four-time gold medalist in the discus, felt boycotting was not the appropriate response to Soviet aggression. As Roosevelt said, “I’m as patriotic as the next guy, but the patriotic thing to do is for us to send a team over there and whip their ass.” Oerter echoed the IOC member’s thoughts, “The only way to compete against Moscow is to stuff it down their throats in their own backyard.”

55% of the American people supported the boycott, including the great Howard Cossell, “It seemed absolutely wrong to me to let them use our athletes and our technological capabilities to broadcast their perverse propaganda to every corner of the globe—and I’ll always admire President Carter for having the guts to spoil their party.”

Winning Allies

The countries who boycotted and those who didn’t. (commons.wikimedia.org)

As President Carter saw it, the key to the boycott was assuring that other countries followed suit. “I don’t want the onus for the failure of the Olympics to fall exclusively on the United States,” said the President. “It must be seen as a legitimate worldwide political reaction to what the Russians are doing in Afghanistan.” To help curry favor to America’s side, President Carter enlisted the help of boxing and political icon, Muhammed Ali.

Luckily for the President, Ali saw Russian hostility in Afghanistan as a problem. President Carter asked Ali to go to Africa and meet with Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere in hopes of swaying African nations to join the boycott. Unfortunately, Nyerere saw Ali’s role as an emissary as insulting, not understanding why Carter sent an athlete as opposed to an ambassador.

When Ali was asked if he was a puppet of the White House, the whole affair backfired. Naturally, Ali responded as only he could, “Nobody made me come here and I’m nobody’s Uncle Tom.” Ultimately, 60 countries joined the boycott, but American allies Great Britain, France, Greece, and Australia all participated in the ‘80 Olympics. 

Things Fall Apart

Many athletes never forgave President Carter, even after a half hearted apology many years later. (politico)

As the Olympics drew near, the political landscape began to shift. Carter made futile attempts to move the games or have them canceled outright. IOC president Lord Killanin was unmoved, announcing, “The judgment of one man, already scrambling for his political life in the American presidential election campaign … had turned the Olympic arena into what was to be its own battleground.”

The situation became worse at the opening for that year’s Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance opened his ceremonial speech with an uncharacteristic decree, “Let me make my government’s position clear. We will oppose the participation of an American team in any Olympic Games in the capital of an invading nation.”

Phil Wolff, the chief of staff of the Lake Placid games put it best, “I spent three years fighting in World War II. Nobody has a deeper love of this country than I do, but that was not right to be so derogatory and political when we’re supposed to be welcoming all our guests from around the world.”

The Games Go On

The view from the 1980 Summer games. (CNN)

Nelson Ledsky, head of the State Department task force on the boycott warned, “The starch seems to be slowly going out of our boycott effort.” Invitations to organize an alternative Olympics were largely ignored. Spain, Italy, and even U.S territory Puerto Rico all decided to participate. 

In all, 80 countries attended and 36 world records were set. The Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan for 10 more years before limping home, leaving behind a radicalized region that ultimately served as their undoing. Ironically, the Soviets would have been better served bowing to President Carter’s edgeless ultimatum.

Tags: Jimmy Carter | The Cold War | The Olympics | The Soviet Union

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Kellar Ellsworth


Kellar Ellsworth was born and raised in Hawaii. He is an avid traveler, surfer and lover of NBA basketball. He wishes he could have grown up in the free love era!