When The Olympics & Politics Mix: #4 – The 1980/84 ‘Cold War’ Games

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The Olympics have always been more than just about sport; and are now fully  intwined with world events and politics. So, in honour of the London 2012 games, the politics section of Wessex Scene are giving a countdown of the top 5 most politicized Olympics. Enjoy.

The events of the 1956 Melbourne games – #5 of our list – had opened a can of worms for the Olympics; it had shown how easily politics could spill over into the event and, with the rise of the political boycott, became the starting point for post-war politicized Olympics. Indeed, from that point on, Olympic political events became only more and more frequent and numerous.

In 1976, for example, 28 countries – mainly African – boycotted the games over the IOC’s refusal to ban New Zealand. This came after New Zealand’s  rugby union team had toured apartheid South Africa; who, at the time, had been banned from competing in most international sporting competitions – from the Olympics since 1964 – due to its racial apartheid politics.

This was nothing, however, to what would come only 4 years later in the 1980 Moscow games, #4 of our countdown – in fact, we are going to slightly cheat here and combine it with the 1984 games.

Their link, after all, is undeniable; these were the Cold War Games; where tensions between the capitalist superpower of the USA and the communist superpower, the USSR, poured over into the Olympics.

It all began in 1980 when the USA – alongside 60 other world nations – boycotted the Moscow games; and while it was the invasion of Hungary that had lead to one of the boycotts of 1956, it was another invasion that had proved the catalyst for this political action once again.

On Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in order to gain a strategic foothold in Southwest Asia as well as to nullify the threat of Islamic fundamentalism. In response, Jimmy Carter – with an election year coming up – gave an ultimatum that the US would withdraw from the Moscow Olympics if the USSR did not leave Afghanistan by the 20th February 1980.

Of course, they didn’t; and thus the US led a boycott – joined by other nations such as West Germany, Japan, China and Canada – with thousands of athletes missing their chances of Olympic glory.

I couldn’t see how my presence in Moscow was going to cause more deaths. A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming. I’m not going to shoot somebody.

Allan Wells
1980 100m Winner

It’s possible the US may have had some sour grapes as Los Angeles had lost the bidding process for the 1980 games. But, in reality, Cold War hostility were clearly brought into the sporting sphere. The US responded by creating its own games involving 29 of the boycotting nations called the Liberty Bell Classic.

The British, however, refused to join the action. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her conservatives were keen to join, but the British Olympic Association refused to give in to government pressure. They were right not to do so; the boycott was nothing more than a symbolic gesture, with no real influence behind it; it also reeked of hypocrisy as the UK remained a trading partner with the communist superpower.

Coe vs. Ovett

The government even turned to using underhand tactics and coercion. Athlete Allan Wells received many letters; the last of which was an image of a young girl dead on the ground. Shocking, yes, but it is hard to disagree with Wells’ assessment “I couldn’t see how my presence in Moscow was going to cause more deaths. A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming. I’m not going to shoot somebody.” The BOA refused to allow it athletes to get caught up in the Cold War confrontation.

On the sporting side, it was a good news for British athletics as it reached its zenith with the 800m and 1500m rivalry of Ovett and Coe (yes, that’s Sebastian Coe, London 2012 organiser); the double-olympic champion that was decathlete Daley Thompson as well as Scotland’s Allan Wells’ win in the 1980 100m making him the last caucasian winner of the “fastest man on earth” race. (Wells, of course, won the race whilst the US boycotted, but took the US athletes on, a fortnight later, in an invitational and won). Even here is a link between the two games with most of these athletes featuring – and winning – in both.

However, many of the nations that did compete – including Britain – did protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. These countries used the Olympic rings flag in the opening ceremony and then raised it in the medal ceremonies alongside the Olympic anthem. Polish high jumper Wladyslaw Kozakieicz also made a symbolic gesture to the Soviet crowd – after beating Russian Konstantin Volkov to gold – in opposition to USSR control over Eastern Europe and Poland. Both events went unmentioned in the Soviet media.

Unsurprisingly, in the tit-for-tat game of world diplomacy, the USSR – along with 14 Eastern Bloc nations and socialist nations such as Vietnam, Angola and Cuba – boycotted the 1984 games of Los Angeles. Once again, the Cold War tensions had spilled into the Olympics.

The USSR cited security concerns for its athletes – due to “anti-Soviet hysteria” in the US – as well as the capitalist commercialisation of the games as the root cause. In many ways, the Kremlin were right about the latter as the 1984 became more about money and sponsorship than ever before; losing its amateur status and leading to (still ongoing) problems of bribery, corruption, overcommercialisation and the loss of the original Olympic ideal.

In reality though, the boycott was revenge for the US’s boycott 4 year previously. Ronald Reagan also believed that it was because there was a fear that many Soviet competitors may have defected. Iran also joined in the anti-US sentiment, boycotting the games due to its inference in the Middle East and Latin America.

And like the US, the Soviet Union even hosted its own boycott games; named Friendship-84 with many nations sending their reserves team to compete, though this did not conflict with the Olympics. Guess who won that?

The American didn’t mind though; they had a ‘rocket man’ at the opening ceremony, stormed the medal table and saw the coming of one of the greatest Olympians ever, Carl Lewis, who took 4 golds in L.A.; Cold War politics, for a moment, were forgotten.

The USSR did manage to financially hurt a leading capitalism symbol though. McDonalds had created a scratch-card promotion where you got an olympic event and where you would win a prize – (burger, fries, Coca-cola) if a US athlete won a medal in that event. With the Soviet boycott, the US steamrolled the competition and won an unprecedented amount of medals; McDonalds lost money because of it.

However, the US were the real winners in the end; the USSR continued their occupation of Afghanistan, which quickly became a unwinnable war – the equivalent of the US’s Vietnam – and essentially crippled the Soviet economy. It was the beginning of the end for the superpower.

Next Up: #3: The 1972 ‘Black Power’ Games

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