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A Look Back at the 1980 Summer Olympic Games Part II

By Donald “Braveheart” Stewart

In the Fall of 2021, Afghanistan loomed large. Whether you agree or not with the war waged there by the USA and its coalition forces over a period of twenty years, there is little doubt that for one country Afghanistan has cast a significant shadow over the history of the world. What is little realized is that it has done so for a lot longer than the last 20 years, during which the coalition forces kept the Taliban at bay. The country has its own troubled history, which goes a lot deeper than this century or even the previous one. Here though it is Afghanistan’s, although oblique, relevance to sport, which serves as a background to the greatest tragedy to have ever affected a US amateur boxing team; it is one which should never be forgotten. I am trying to take you back to 1980.

By doing so I hope to explain how an appalling plane crash in Poland gave the US their greatest sporting tragedy; How it fitted within a worldwide context of the time; And how the US President of the time by leading a boycott of the Olympic Games of that self-same year, denied many athletes, some of whom were lost on that plane, of an opportunity to win an ultimate prize – an Olympic Gold Medal. It is also an opportunity to reflect on the promise lost in that crash, of the legacies left behind by the people who lost their lives and of the politics that saw Afghanistan dominate world politics, long before it hid the Taliban. Finally, it’s all about who missed the fateful flight and what happened after the accident.

And now, we are about to look at the boycott, and if it was a unique or innovative way of addressing a military problem with a diplomatic protest.

“There is no alternative besides Moscow anymore,” he said. “It’s Moscow or nothing.” IOC President Lord Killanin.


This American led boycott was not the first boycott of the modern Olympic era for political reasons and was certainly not to be the last. In 1956 western countries refused to go to Melbourne over the Soviet invasion of Hungary. In 1976 Montreal had not welcomed most of sub–Saharan African states as they were appalled at the inclusion of New Zealand who had toured apartheid South Africa with their rugby team. In 1984, at Los Angeles, the Soviets were to “get their own back” by boycotting the next Olympics after Moscow, to be held on US soil.

And so, the scene was, if you like, set. The curious story of the 1980 US boycott, saw boxing play its own part. Always eager to be at the forefront of most things, the sport, seeking some relevance in the wider world was keen to be visible. Ironically, US government turned to man who they had pilloried and stripped of his titles. His role was as an envoy, an ambassador. The man who answered the call of his country to do what he can when he refused to fight no Vietcong, saw Muhammad Ali off on a mission.

Ali was asked by President Carter to travel round Africa, his Africa, to talk to those leaders who could be persuaded to talk with him and gain their support. Ali proved, once again, that he was an able advocate but also, a loose cannon. From doing charity work in India one day to hearing his name being chanted in Dar es Salaam in Tanzania the next, a jet lagged, and discordant man was the American representative in various global villages and towns.

Who says the Americans do not understand irony? After all, having convinced Ali to take on the role, the American State Department hoped his intervention would stop the US becoming embarrassed by the boycott. They needed support and a man they had stopped defending his world title, embarrassing themselves in front of the world, was just the guy they needed.

Ali was no supporter of the USSR’s invasion. Whilst in India, however, he was visited by the Soviet ambassador there, Yuli Vorontsov, who was sent to convince Ali that his mission as a bad one; he failed, and Ali boarded another plane to continue to carry it out, after their discussion.

Unfortunately, the State Department had not really given Ali enough of a briefing and the Americans had miscalculated. Ali was popular, but he was no statesman. The President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere was less than impressed. His view was simply, in a matter of importance to world peace the Americans were only bothered to send a mere athlete as an envoy.

Ali was then accused by the media of being a puppet of the White House: Ali responded robustly that he “was no Uncle Tom.” From being the guy who threw insults, Ali was now the guy who was the target of such insults, and he did not appreciate it.

Ali, apparently in a phone call to Carter himself, spoke of changing sides.

It was an unheeded warning to Carter that the course he had now plotted was not quite as straight forward as he had hoped. It was an indication that his forward planning may not be effective. Ali’s mission, however, continued, but it converted Ali rather than converted the Africans. In the end, Ali, always a free thinker, was talked out of the boycott by the very people he sought to persuade be part of it!

Whilst the American government’s stance was firm and the US President, imperious in thought and deed, was resolute, he was not the one who could impose a sporting boycott. The US Olympic Committee were the ones who had the final say but given the political pressure in the US were they ever going to be the bastion of their athlete’s desire to face an Olympic trial? Would they meekly fall in line?

The point of a boycott, the point of any boycott, is largely symbolic. Given that the U.S.S.R. were past masters of such protests – they had boycotted track meets in 1966, the 1967 World University Games, 1968, the qualifying rounds of the 1974 World Cup, the 1975 modern rhythmic gymnastics competitions and even the World Chess Olympics in 1976 – the list goes on – perhaps the thinking was that talking in a language that your opponent understands would lead to a greater and more profound effect upon them? Politically, however, what the President targeted was a movement – the Olympics – that the Soviet Regime had boycotted themselves for the first 34 years of their existence. Calling it a “bourgeois” movement, the Soviets did not see themselves as part of the greater sporting calendar until 1951. Though they had threatened to boycott the Mexico City Games in 1968 until South Africa were removed, using the tactic to justify its own world view, they were unlikely to be much troubled by such a bourgeois world view which had now become firmly focused against them.


With a boycott firmly on the agenda, it still required compliance from those draped in the flag – the athletes themselves. Would they meekly lay down and do as they were told?

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