Physical Sports & Politics

Throughout history sports have been a way for nations to come together in celebration of a joint athletic spirit and the ability to demonstrate their national pride. While many Olympic Games have been rooted in controversies such as drug and doping scandals, the 1980 Olympics held in Moscow, had to face mass boycotts from foreign nations. This boycott by numerous nations was the political response to the Soviet Union after its invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was done because of the region’s importance to international politics and Afghanistan’s positive relationship with the United States (Freeze, 446). This Cold War tactic by the Soviet Union did not just end terribly because of the resulting war that consumed a large amount of military resources such as soldiers and arms, but also because of the irreversible effect it had on the Soviet’s international image.

The Olympic Games have traditionally been an event set to demonstrate the best athletes from every nation and give a rise in the feelings of nationalism (Siegelbaum). The Olympics were, and still are, perceived to be an event a nation should be proud to host because of the international recognition and ability to demonstrate its culture to people around the world. The 1980 Moscow Olympics was set to do this as previous hosting nations had done, except they had to contend with the politics and influence of the United States President, Jimmy Carter. President Carter was of course deep in the middle of Cold War politics and had to find an appropriate respond to condemn the actions of the Soviet Union. As economic sanction were not likely to do anything to drastically effect the Soviet Union and political sanction had been unofficially in effect for years at this point, boycotting the Olympics as a political protest was the only solution. It was a solution that President Carter was forced to come to because of the domestic pressures caused by his goal of getting reelected and the upcoming elections in key parts of the U.S. that his party could not afford to lose (Lucler).

"Olympic matchbox Cover" (1980)

President’s Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics was originally rejected by many Western European nations, as they did not see the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan as being any different than other political actions. These nations would commonly cite the United States’ international actions and its participation in the scheduled Olympics in 1968 as hypocritical (Lucler). African nations, and the majority of the Third World, also saw the hypocrisy in the actions of the United States as they had attempted to do the same thing during the previous Olympics in 1976 to protest against the racism policies of South Africa. It is important to note that when asked about this plan, that the United States stated that the Olympic Games should not be used for political protest (Lucler).

The Olympic boycott was obviously not received positively in the Soviet Union, as they viewed it as an attempt spearheaded by the United States to undermine the purpose of the games and the Soviet Union. Because of this, the Soviet media was given permission to comment against the statements and propaganda of the West (Siegelbaum). For example, Pravda wrote in March, 1980 that, “Washington does not hide the fact that the campaign aimed at wrecking the Olympics is being pursued for strictly political ends. What Carter and his “team” need is not a coming together of individuals and peoples, which the Olympic movement promotes, but division, disunity and tension (Olympic Boycott).” The journalists focused on how the boycott was a political move that would serve President Carter’s ambitions instead of allowing for the world to come together and have a few weeks of relative, non-political peace. The same newspaper article would go on to quote Al Feuerbach, an American athlete where he stated that, “I am 100% against staying out of the Games,” to show that President Carter’s suggestion was unpopular within his own country, not just abroad (Olympic Boycott).

A Soviet Union newspaper rejected the idea that the Olympic boycott would be successful in June, 1980 when it focused on the number of participating nations. This article states that days after the deadline for submitting applications to attend that 85 nations would participate in the Moscow Olympics. This is despite the American-supported boycott that had great influence over many nations. Despite being American-backed, only 29 nations stated that they would not attend the Olympic Games, with 19 of those nations citing non-political reasons for their nonparticipation (“To the Moscow Olympics).” With these reports and millions of tickets sold, the Moscow Olympics were a success despite the American attempt to force it into becoming a failure.



Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History, Third Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.

Lucler, Scott. “The Olympics: The Games that Aren’t.” Umoja Sasa. (1980): 15. Web. 22. April. 2018.

Siegelbaum, Lewis. “Moscow Olympics.” Soviethistory. Web. 22 April. 2018.

“Olympic Boycott.” Soviethistory. Web. 22 April. 2018.

Stanislas, Dmitriev. “virtual Matchbox Label Collection. 1999. Soviethistory. Web. 22 April. 2018.

“To the Moscow Olympics.” The Current Digest of the Russian Press. Vol. 32, No. 21. (1980): 6. Web. 22 April. 2018.

8 thoughts on “Physical Sports & Politics

  1. Taylor, this was an interesting post! I feel like this topic is something many people know about but don’t know the root causes of. You mentioned that this was his “only option”– do you think Carter could have chosen a more effective method to show he disapproved of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan?


  2. I knew very little of the 1980s olympics besides that we boycotted it before reading your post. You did a really good job at laying out the reasoning for the US to boycott and also showing how it may have been a bad idea. I specifically found the reference to the US hypocrisy regarding the 1976 Olympics very interesting as well being that the civil rights movement had only recently found its success. I wonder what would have to happen for an Olympics to be boycotted today and how successful it would be.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. A very thought provoking post! It is interesting how the Olympic have become such an important international symbol in global cooperation and togetherness. The decision to boycott such, especially for political reasons, comes with many ramifications regardless of who is right or wrong. It is and is not surprising that the decision by Carter was unpopular in the US.


  4. This was a fascinating post! I didn’t previously know the exact reason the U.S. boycotted the Olympics that year. It’s interesting how many countries called the U.S. out on their hypocrisy. Although I guess it’s important to remember that the U.S. had a different president in 1976 than it did in 1980, so the two administrations may have had different views on the matter.


  5. The article you cite from the Current Digest is really interesting in terms of the angle the Soviet took — highlighting the fact that 85 countries chose to participate minimized the importance of the 29 who stayed away.


  6. Out of curiosity, I looked up the list of nations that boycotted the Olympics along with the United States. One thing that stood out to me was that China didn’t participate. I wonder if in your research you found an answer as to why this happened. Did the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan further strain Sino-Soviet relations because the Soviets saw Central Asia and the Middle East as within their sphere of influence?


  7. Hindsight it would seem obvious that Carter would get called out on his hypocrisy which is why it is surprising that they stuck their reasoning. It is also interesting that the best thing they could choose to protest was the Olympics, one of the largest symbols of peace. Hard to say whether it worked out in the long run since the Soviet Union did not last too much longer but good post.


  8. I understand why the United States chose to stay out of the Olympics, however I feel for the athletes whose careers were devastated by this choice. Also I love the picture the bear is adorable.


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