Jimmy Carter Announces The 1980 Olympics Boycott
This summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo are currently in limbo because of the coronavirus pandemic, but it's not the first time that the United States did not participate in the Summer Olympics. In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. would not send any teams to that year's Summer Olympics, held in Moscow, in protest of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Let's take a look back at the 1980 Olympics boycott, how it started, and how it all shook out.
The Soviets Invaded Afghanistan
In the late 1970s, Afghanistan was rocked by internal conflict and political unrest, and a new communist government took advantage of the upheaval by seizing power and building strong ties with the neighboring Soviet Union. Anti-communist Muslim groups, backed by the United States, sought to overthrow the new communist leaders, so on Christmas Eve 1979, the Soviet Union sent more than 30,000 troops into Afghanistan to keep the Soviet-approved president of Afghanistan in power. The conflict quickly settled into a stalemate.
Jimmy Carter And His Ultimatum
Jimmy Carter took office in 1977, in the thick of the Cold War. Several conflicts with the Soviet Union defined his foreign policy legacy, including the Iran Hostage Situation, the Camp David Accords, and the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. Having had quite enough of their shenanigans over the previous two years, he demanded that the Soviets pull out of Afghanistan, but they refused. After all other attempts at negotiation failed, Carter issued an ultimatum to the Soviets: If they didn't pull out of Afghanistan, the United States would boycott the 1980 Olympics that were slated to be held in Moscow in July. The Soviets remained unmoved, so Carter announced on March 21, 1980 that the United States' Olympic teams would be staying right where they were.
Trying To Save The Games
After Carter threatened to pull American athletes from the Olympics, other countries followed suit. Recognizing that the Olympics was in danger of becoming two guys on bikes, International Olympic Committee President Lord Killanin tried everything he could to save the Olympics, including arranging for another meeting between Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev in an attempt to end the stalemate. Unfortunately, the meeting was unsuccessful.
Using Sports As A Political Pawn
The 1980 Olympics boycott was a controversial decisions, as some people felt that sports (particularly the Olympics) should be kept separate from global political affairs. After all, the premise of the Olympic Games was to provide an opportunity for the nations of the world to come together in the spirit of competition. There was no reason, they argued, to punish athletes who had done nothing wrong and worked their whole lives for this moment. (But don't feel too bad for them: Several had dual citizenship, allowing them to compete for other countries.)
Standing With The United States
After President Carter's announcement, several other countries—Canada, Japan, Chile, Kenya, West Germany, Argentina, Nigeria, China, Iran, and the Philippines—hopped on the 1980 Olympics boycott bandwagon. Meanwhile, France, Australia, and the United Kingdom officially declared their support for the boycott but left it up to the individual athletes to determine if they would compete or not. Italy declared that any of their athletes who also served in the military could not compete, while Spain sent athletes to compete under a neutral flag. In fact, athletes from 16 countries competed under the Olympic flag and used the Olympic anthem during podium ceremonies. In total, 65 countries boycotted the Moscow games, and only 80 countries participated.
The Next Best Thing
For the athletes who couldn't find any loopholes into the 1980 Olympics, alternative athletic competitions were planned, such as the Liberty Bell Classic for track and field athletes and the USGF International Invitational for gymnasts. Equestrian, boxing, and swimming events were also staged.
Fighting A Boycott With a Boycott
By a twist of fate, the next summer games were scheduled to be held in Los Angeles in 1984. Presented with a clever opportunity for retaliation, the Soviet Union—along with 13 Eastern Bloc nations and political allies—announced that they would boycott the 1984 Olympic Games. Instead, they hosted their own athletic competition called the Friendship Games that year. Despite the loss of these 14 countries, the 1984 Olympics hosted a record number of athletes representing 140 countries.
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