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Canceling American Athletes to Punish Russia: The 1980 Moscow Olympics Boycott

As Russian troops, missiles, and tanks strike farther into Ukraine, American political elites and their allies are doing what they do best: punishing innocent people for the sins of others. Russian musicians, athletes, artists, and writers are finding they are not welcome at venues where they have performed for years, not because of anything they have done or said, but because they are easy targets for outraged Westerners looking to blame someone for the carnage.

For example, the International Olympic Committee is demanding the banning of Russian athletes from the Olympic Games. The current ban is across nearly all international sports, including track and field, soccer, hockey, ice skating, and more. While Western governments and sports authorities have no influence over the decisions of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, they have decided to punish people—many of whom have publicly (and bravely) denounced the Ukraine invasion—in what truly is a mean-spirited and empty gesture.

More than forty years ago, in the wake of the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, instead of having athletes from the USSR banned from international competition, President Jimmy Carter managed to ban athletes from the United States. The event was the 1980 Olympic Games hosted by the Soviet Union in Moscow, and as Westerners are doing today, President Carter insisted on punishing people who had nothing to do with the invasion in order to take an action that had no effect on the Soviet army and certainly did not benefit the victims in Afghanistan.

Like the attacks on innocent bystanders today, Carter’s strategy was based more on looking as though he were “doing something” as opposed to allowing “business as usual.” Understand that the invasion of Afghanistan was a brutal event and the USSR earned no friends in the decade it occupied that hapless country. Carter was not wrong to protest what the Russians were doing, just as there is nothing wrong in condemning Putin and his government allies for their actions.

However, the “we must do something” syndrome was as strong then as it is now, and the response of the USA involved more than just promoting an Olympic boycott. Through the Central Intelligence Agency, the USA promoted a proxy war by arming Afghan guerrillas, and while that might have been popular with Americans, in the long run it led to tragedy. First, while the Afghan fighters managed to hold their own against the Soviets, their victory ultimately led to the infamous Taliban, which imposed one of the most repressive regimes in modern times. In the end, the US involvement with these fighters led indirectly to the 9/11 attacks and then the US war in Afghanistan that lasted more than twenty years.

Second, by empowering the CIA, the agency gained new favor in the eyes of the public after having its misdeeds exposed during the 1970s. While the national security state that the USA has become already had taken root and was expanding, the CIA’s involvement in Afghanistan only increased the role that the CIA would take not only in world affairs, but also domestic life. The CIA may well have grown anyway, but Afghanistan gave it new life, and we are the poorer for it.

While the CIA was becoming entangled in Afghanistan, the Olympic boycott was taking shape. Ironically, the USA had hosted the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York, with a makeshift USA team’s improbable upset of the USSR’s vaunted ice hockey team being the big story there. Americans performed exceptionally well at Lake Placid, and when President Carter hosted members of the US team at the White House, he congratulated them for their performances but then reemphasized his point that American athletes would not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow.

While having the Summer Olympics in Moscow was controversial, given the nature of the Communist government, in the eyes of Soviet leaders, it was nonetheless the opportunity to give their regime some international legitimacy, and they took the US-led boycott very hard. For that matter, US athletes also took things very hard, and many protested loudly.

One aspiring Olympian, the late Dick Buerkle, who at the time held the world record for the indoor mile, told me that he resented “being forced to be part of Jimmy Carter’s reelection campaign.” Other athletes were just as bitter, and they presented alternatives to the White House, such as not participating in the opening and closing ceremonies and taking other measures of protest. But Carter, bolstered by public opinion, refused to budge.

In the end, American athletes didn’t go to the games and NBC, which had paid a large sum of money to broadcast them in the USA, took a huge financial hit. Sports like track and field held Olympic tryouts and had official teams, but they were teams dressed up and going nowhere. Congress commissioned sets of medals to be given to each of the athletes—as though that would substitute for an athlete’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete against the best in the world.

While one can criticize or even condemn the overly political Olympic Games, for athletes the moments are nonetheless very personal. Having had many friends who were track and field Olympians and even medal winners, it is hard even to explain what the boycott meant—and did—to them. After all, as some of them said at the time, the boycott had no effect on the Afghanistan war, and for that matter, American Olympians never had been barred from the games, even during the Vietnam War, nor were they excluded during the later invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The gesture, in the end, was utterly futile, but it did create a lot of political damage and all but guaranteed a Soviet and Eastern European boycott of the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles. Adding the African boycott of the 1976 Summer Games, the Olympic Movement saw three major boycotts in a row that nearly brought down the entire house. And in the end, none of those boycotts accomplished anything positive. The world’s best athletes were exposed as pawns of politicians that faced no consequences for denying others the opportunity to do what they did best: compete.

Over time, many people came to realize the damage done by the boycotts, but one wonders if any real lessons have been learned by the political classes. Keeping Russian athletes, artists, musicians, and actors from taking part in their craft will not end Putin’s invasion nor will the action bring about good will, something sorely needed at this time. Instead, once again, we see the political classes exposed as being petty, mean spirited, and always destructive.