The 1980 Moscow Olympics were supposed to be the Soviet Union’s chance to show off their culture and athletic prowess on the international stage. An article in Pravda stated that the organizers intended for Muscovites to engage with visitors and “familiarize the Olympic guests… with the most noteworthy aspects of our life,” while at the same time wanted to keep the “toxic gases taken from the storehouses of the cold war” from intruding on the sport. However, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 caused the United States and 55 other countries to boycott the games in protest.
Soviet newspapers condemned the boycott as “a strictly political” move and an attack on the Olympic movement. They blamed the Americans for “disrupting the process of detente by any means.” They paid a lot of attention to how unfair the boycott was for the athletes being denied a trip to the Olympics, a complaint that, interestingly, is now a very common complaint of the boycott in the US as well.
This was hardly the first time that the Olympics had become political. Since the Soviets rejoined the Olympic movement in 1952, the Olympics had served as a non-violent proxy war between the two rival superpowers. Possibly most emblematic of this dynamic was the “Miracle on Ice” ice hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. Also tied to the invasion of Afghanistan, the triumph of the American team over the feared Soviet Red Army team (so-called because the members were ostensibly members of the military, but spent all of their time training for hockey. Igor Larionov gives a great account of the Soviet training system here) prompted a phone call from the president and rejoicing across the country.
The games were still well-attended by Soviet citizens and tourists from non-boycotting countries; so in that sense, they were a success. The Soviets indeed declared the games a success and a “serious moral and political defeat for Washington.” But relations between the US and the USSR were clearly deteriorating. The Soviet government was angry enough about the slight that they boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles in return. The boycott is also not remembered favorably in the US; there were enough bad feelings about it that President Carter was kept out of the planning for the 1996 Games in Atlanta, the capital of his home state.
This post received a “Red Star” from the editorial team