The 1980 Summer Olympics boycott was one part of a number of actions initiated by the United States to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union, which hosted the 1980 Summer Olympics, and other countries would later boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Western governments first considered the idea of boycotting the Moscow Olympics in response to the situation in Afghanistan at the 20 December 1979 meeting of NATO representatives. The idea was not completely new: since 1975/1976 proposals for an Olympic boycott circulated widely among human rights activists and groups as a sanction for Soviet violations of human rights. At that moment, not many of the member governments were interested in the proposal. The idea began to gain popularity in early January 1980 when Russian dissident Andrei Sakharov called for a boycott. On 14 January 1980, the Carter Administration joined Sakharov's appeal and set a deadline by which the Soviet Union must pull out of Afghanistan or face the consequences, including an international boycott of the games. On 26 January 1980, Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark announced that Canada, like the US, would boycott the Olympic Games if Soviet forces did not leave Afghanistan by 20 February 1980.
In late January the Soviet regime prepared to face down this "hostile campaign". As Central Committee documents show, in addition to its own propaganda efforts it was relying on the International Olympic Committee and its 89 member committees to behave as in the past (e.g. after Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968), and not give in to pressure from national governments. It noted that the government and National Olympic Committee of France had already stated a willingness to participate.
After its 24 April meeting, the head of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Robert Kane told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the USOC would be willing to send a team to Moscow if there were a "spectacular change in the international situation" in the coming weeks.
In an attempt to save the Games Lord Killanin, then president of the IOC, arranged to meet and discuss the boycott with Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, before the new 24 May deadline. Killanin insisted that the Games should continue as scheduled, while President Carter reaffirmed the US position. viz. to boycott the Games unless the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan.
Several interventions at the late April 1980 Bilderberg meeting in Aachen included discussion of the implications of the boycott. The world would perceive a boycott, it was argued, as little more than a sentimental protest, not a strategic act. An African representative at the Bilderberg meeting voiced a different view: whether there was additional support outside the US or not, he believed, a boycott would be an effective symbolic protest and be dramatically visible to those within the Soviet Union. Some Russian dissidents expressed an opinion that boycott would be a strong message to the Soviets who breached the Olympic rules to achieve their political goals. The Carter administration brought considerable pressure to bear on other NATO Member-States to support the boycott. Their support was not universal.
The International Olympics Federations protested that the pressures by the US and other supporting countries for the boycott was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end, and the victims of this action would be the athletes. West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said that the American attitude that the allies "should simply do as they are told" was unacceptable, although West Germany did join the boycott.
Boxer Muhammad Ali was dispatched by the US administration to Tanzania, Nigeria, and Senegal to convince their leaders to join the boycott. He also successfully convinced the Kenyan government to do that.
Many countries ultimately joined the US in a full boycott of the Games. These included Japan and West Germany where Chancellor Schmidt was able to convince the National Olympic Committee (NOC) to support the boycott. China, the Philippines, Chile, Argentina and Canada also boycotted the Games entirely. Some of these countries competed at the alternative "Liberty Bell Classic" or Olympic Boycott Games held in Philadelphia that same year.
The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Australia supported the boycott, but left any final decision over the participation of their country's athletes to their respective NOCs and the decision of their individual athletes. The United Kingdom and France sent a much smaller athletic delegation than would have originally been possible. The British associations that governed equestrian sports, hockey, and yachting completely boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics.
Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland were other principal nations representing western Europe at the Games. All these countries participated under a neutral flag with the Olympic anthem played in any ceremony. Italian athletes serving in its military corps could not attend the Games, however, because of the national government's official support of the boycott. Many events were affected by the loss of participants and some US-born athletes who were citizens of other countries, such as Italy and Australia, did compete in Moscow.
A firm enemy of the United States under Ayatollah Khomeini's new theocracy, Iran also boycotted the Moscow Games after Khomeini joined the condemnation by the United Nations and the Islamic Conference of the invasion of Afghanistan. Independently of the United States, the Islamic Conference urged a boycott of Moscow after the invasion; the Ayatollah meanwhile accused Moscow of arming the Baluchis against his regime.
Many teams were avoided by Soviet television at the Games during the opening and closing ceremonies because their national governments officially supported the boycott. Their national colors could not be flown nor could their anthems be played (Australia, Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Puerto Rico, San Marino, Spain, and Switzerland).
Lord Killanin permitted NOC-qualified athletes to compete at the Games without their national flags or anthems (which allowed NOCs to send athletes in a non-national context) but this did not allow other individuals lacking NOC sanction to participate in the Games as this was perceived by the IOC as a potential weakening of their authority. Four competitors (including one athlete) from New Zealand competed independently and marched under their NOC flag because the government officially supported the boycott. The athletes of 16 countries did not fly their national flags. Instead Olympic flags were raised and the Olympic Anthem replaced their national anthems at the medal ceremonies. There was one awards ceremony where three Olympic flags were raised.
Other modifications were made in the Games activities, such as when the Boycott prevented Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau from attending the Moscow Games. Sandra Henderson and Stéphane Préfontaine, the final torchbearers at the previous games, were sent in his stead to participate in the Antwerp Ceremony at the opening ceremony, and at the closing ceremony, the Los Angeles city flag (rather than the United States flag) was raised to symbolize the next host of the Olympic Games. The Antwerp flag was received by an IOC member from the USA instead of the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley; there was no handover to Los Angeles ceremony at the closing.
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Sixty-six countries that were invited to participate in the 1980 Olympics did not do so for various reasons including support for the boycott and economic reasons. Qatar could not be invited until IOC recognition which occurred in 1980 but too late to be invited. Taiwan refused to participate as a result of the 1979 Nagoya Resolution, in which the People's Republic of China agreed to participate in IOC activities if Taiwan was referred to as "Chinese Taipei". However, China boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games as well.
The sixteen nations that follow participated in the Games under some adjustment to full conventional participation in the Games activities.
Seven countries participated in the Games without taking part in the Opening Ceremony:
Two nations sent one representative each (Chef de Mission) who entered the Olympic stadium during the Opening Ceremony under the Olympic flag; for each country this was a token gesture, as their governments allowed athletes to take part in the Games if they chose to do so. Ireland also competed under the Olympic flag, rather than its own.
At least 5 national teams participated at the Games under the Olympic flag rather than their respective National or NOC flags, as doing the latter would have denoted that their participation was officially sanctioned by their respective nations.
Events were staged separately in several sports, including the Liberty Bell Classic for track and field and the USGF International Invitational for gymnastics. At the U.S. Swimming Nationals, the split and finishing times from the corresponding Olympic events the previous week were displayed on the scoreboards so that a virtual comparison of medals "won" by U.S. swimmers could be kept.
American athletes are still affected by the boycott today; a University of Alabama media guide gave the history of all former students who were Olympic athletes.