Sport Diplomacy in the Cold War: The Failure of the 1980 Olympic Boycott

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On January 20, 1980, Jimmy Carter delivered an ultimatum for the Soviet Union to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan or face a US boycott of the Moscow Olympic Games later that year.

The ultimatum was part of a ‘package of protest’ following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Carter also banned grain sales, halted technology transfers, hiked defence spending, and instituted a military draft in the US. The invasion also prompted the creation of the ‘Carter Doctrine’, which stated that the US would block any Soviet move into the Persian Gulf. There were fears in 1980, since shown to be unfounded, that Afghanistan might be the first domino to fall as part of a Soviet drive for control of Saudi Arabian oil fields.

The Carter Administration hoped that the US boycott would lead to a similar move from its Western allies. Such an act of solidarity among the free nations of the world would demonstrate a multinational resistance to Soviet imperialism. This propaganda coup would pile pressure on a shamed Kremlin to announce a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Such was the plan.

While the Afghan invasion was deeply worrying, domestic political issues in the US, however, were clearly a key reason behind the Carter boycott plan. He had been advised by White House aides that he desperately needed to display decisive leadership and to ‘act tough’ in the run-up to the 1980 presidential election. This was crucial to first fend off Edward Kennedy’s Democratic Party Primary challenge, and then to be in a position to compete with Ronald Reagan’s unblemished anti-communist credentials in the election.

While the boycott might be seen as successful, given that 65 countries did not participate – and of these, 29 competed in the rival ‘Olympic Boycott Games’, held in Philadelphia – the Carter Administration’s actions were ill thought-out and poorly executed.

In the run up to the 1980 games, a number of US athletes protested the decision, though it did receive support from the general public. The US Olympic Committee went along with Carter’s wishes, but the Olympic Committees of US allies did not respond so positively. As independent organisations, many simply refused to participate in the boycott. Carter did not seem to grasp that allied nations would be unable to demand that their Olympic Committees withdraw from the games. This oversight meant usually staunch allies such as the UK, Australia, and Ireland would compete in Moscow, clearly limiting the strong diplomatic message Carter intended.

The ambiguous outcome of the boycott has resulted in a generally negative view of Jimmy Carter’s actions. A recent book by Nicholas Sarantakes (‘Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, The Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2011)) argues that the boycott ‘was too weak to change Soviet actions but too strong for them to ignore’ (264). The boycott symbolised the decisive end to superpower detente but did nothing to alter Soviet policy in Afghanistan.

Instead, it would prompt retaliation in 1984 from the Soviet Union and its satellites, who refused to attend the Los Angeles games. The boycott did not ruin Moscow’s games and was widely seen as a petty diplomatic move, jeopardising the Olympic movement, as well as harming the careers of US athletes. It also did little to improve Jimmy Carter’s personal image, who would secure the Democratic nomination, but would lose the 1980 election to Reagan.

Further Reading:

Sarantakes, N., Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, The Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011

Glad, Betty. An Outsider in the White House: Jimmy Carter, His Advisors, and the Making of American Foreign Policy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2009.

Smith, Gaddis. Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years. New York, NY: Hill and Wang, 1987.

– This entry is a cross-posting from nickblackbourn.com