Afghanistan conflict precipitates Moscow 1980 Olympics boycott

By Paul Myers - RFI
Europe Afghanistan conflict precipitates Moscow 1980 Olympics boycott
DEC 11, 2023 LISTEN

Ancient Greek philosophers would surely have loved the irony: a politician positing a position with the hope of avoiding politicisation. 

Back in 1980, the American president, Jimmy Carter, suggested siting the Olympic Games permanently in Greece as a way to stop the event falling prey to grandstanding administrations. 

Apart from the country not possessing the infrastructure for the modern version of its ancient extravaganza, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) sensed a move to reduce its powers and rejected the option. 

US-led boycott
The United States, thus outmanoeuvred, led a 60-nation boycott of the 1980 summer Games in Moscow in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

Four years later, the Games in Los Angeles were boycotted by the Soviet Union and 14 Eastern Bloc nations over what were called security concerns and anti-Soviet hysteria in the US. 

Viewed through the prism of sophisticated modern mores, utterly tacky tit for tat. Nowadays, a kaleidoscope of nuances reign. 

Just over a year after President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into Ukraine via Belarus, the IOC says that Russian and Belarusian athletes should be able to compete at the 2024 Paris Games under a neutral banner even if the conflict continues in Ukraine. 

Insults have rained down on the IOC from the Ukrainian leader Volodymr Zelensky who mentions the "B" word. 

Twas ever thus. 
Soviet military aggression was the ostensible reason for the boycott in 1980. Russian bellicosity now. 

But the outrage of yore was a tad more premeditated. Carter was aware of the rising threat to a possible second term as president from the former actor turned California governor Ronald Reagan. 

Carter also wanted to show his toughness to compensate for the impasse over the American hostages held since November 4 1979 in the US embassy in Tehran. 

Carter's burgeoning distress and his tactics scrambled the big brains in the Kremlin. 

“So far as we know and so far as I can tell the Soviets gave no consideration to the fact that the invasion of Afghanistan might be a problem with the Olympics,” said Bob Edelman, a professor of Russian history and history of sport and the University of California: San Diego. 

“These were former students who had studied in Russia and the Soviet Union and were now very contentiously doing a very bad job of leading the new Afghanistan. So the Soviets intervened in order to calm the situation down, not necessarily to gain control over the territory of Afghanistan. They never expected that there would be any issue. In fact, it never came up.” 

A surprise really because 29 countries, most of them African, snubbed the 1976 Olympics in Montreal over the IOC's refusal to ban New Zealand after the country's rugby union team had toured South Africa earlier in the year in defiance of United Nations calls for a sporting embargo on apartheid South Africa. 

“Naivety might not be a bad way of putting it,” added Edelman. “Basically, sport was not the number one concern of these Soviet leaders and so the connection really was not that powerful for them, despite the fact that they had invested extensive resources and political energy into the subject of Olympic sport.” 

Dazzled by Soviet preeminence
Perhaps the leaders were still dazzled by Soviet preeminence in Montreal where the athletes won the most golds and topped the overall medal table. A repeat performance on home soil would be propaganda wonderland. 

What ultimately emerged for Carter was a descent into the slurry.  His dministration had to lobby its allies to pull out and it also faced point blank refusals to toe the American line. 

Carter was maladroitness incarnate. He dispatched the former boxer Muhammed Ali to Africa as an envoy to convince nations there to skip the event. 

Piqued at the condescension, the Tanzanian leader, Julius Nyere, did not meet Ali during the three-day visit and sent Tanzanians to compete in Moscow. 

“It was a a miserable fiasco,” said Edelman. “Ali hadn't prepared for it. And of course, the pretence and the fundamental presuppositions of it were flawed as well. 

“The African countries said to the Americans in 1980: 'Where were you in 1976 when we wanted you? When we needed you?' And of course, at that point, the United States was not sufficiently critical of apartheid.” 

While the Tanzanians had the green light to go, Britain, under recently installed Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher, was keen to back the US. A vote in the House of Commons supported a boycott by 315 votes to 147. 

Athletes decision
But the British Olympic Association defied the government and offered athletes the chance to compete or stay home. 

Wilbert Greaves, one of just over 200 Britons who travelled to Moscow, said he had no qualms about going. 

"The decision wasn't a difficult one," recalled the 66-year-old. "It was going to be my first Olympic Games and secondly, the previous year I'd spent most of the time recovering from glandular fever. 

"So I wanted to prove to myself that I could get back to where I was in terms of fitness. And once I qualified for the Games, that was it. The team was named and I was going. Nothing else figured in my mind." 

He reached the semi-finals of the 110 metres high hurdles and got to the same stage at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. 

"Those athletes who chose to go to the games and won medals ... they won them on their own merit," he insisted. 

"And whoever else wasn't there ... missed out. That's the way I look at it," added Greaves who now works in event hospitality 

"I've had the experiences on the track in Moscow and Lose Angeles and behind the scenes at the Olympics in London, Rio and Tokyo," he added. "And for me that has been a fulfillment of my life. And hopefully, fingers crossed, I may be in Paris in 2024." 

Uncertainty continues to corrode the preparations for exactly who will be in the French capital for the lavish opening ceremony along the river Seine on 28 July and the close of the Games on 11 August. 

Despite the IOC ruling that the Russians and Belarusians can participate as neutrals, France's sports minister, Amélie Oudéa-Castéra, said in March 2023 that Emmanuel Macron's government might refuse entry to athletes from those countries. 

"The IOC recommendations are a step which does not pre-judge what we will do for Paris 2024," she added. 

"It's the IOC that has the final say, it's the IOC that determines the conditions under which athletes participate. On the other hand, it's clear that the head of state of the host nation will have a voice that will be heard in the IOC's deliberations." 

Russian ban
World Athletics - headed by Greaves' British teammate Sebastian Coe - slapped a ban on Russian and Belarusian competitors soon after the start of the Russian offensive and even after the IOC's moves showed no signs of relaxing its stance. 

“The death and destruction we have seen in Ukraine over the past year, including the deaths of some 185 athletes, have only hardened my resolve on this matter," said Coe. 

Russia's sports minister, Oleg Matytsin, predictably frothed at World Athletics' decision. “We consider these politicized restrictions unacceptable,” Matytsin said. “The Olympic Games must remain neutral, and international federations must give all of the strongest athletes in their sport the right to compete." 

Et voilà, the eternal faultlines. Forty-three years ago, sports administrators battled for supremacy with politicians over the Moscow Games. 

Paris looms amid bickering. “If politics decides who can take part in a competition then sport and athletes become tools of politics," said IOC boss Thomas Bach at the Ruhr Political Forum in Essen in Germany in March 2023. "It is then impossible for sport to transfer its uniting powers. 

"We are in a dilemma," Bach added. "We feel, suffer with and understand the Ukrainian people and athletes. On the other hand, we have, as a global organisation, a responsibility towards human rights and the Olympic Charter. 

"Both do not allow such a total isolation of people with a specific passport." 

It appears forgivably twee of some 30 nations to write to the IOC stating that Russia and Belarus can return to the international fold by ending the hostilities in Ukraine. 

The Soviets stayed in Afghanistan, the 1980 Olympics went on and so will the 2024 Games with the concomitant controversy. 

"Well, the Games are a big fat target for political intervention," said Edelman. 

"Lots of people are watching. Polticians want attention. It's a good way to do it ... for them it's just another day at the office."