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 the world of politics and the politics in the world began to rise in temperature.
“That night was the only time in my life I’ve been embarrassed to be an American.” Phil Wolff, the chief of staff of the Lake Placid games.
“I am somewhat incredulous that a group of mature and what I consider to be among the most patriotic of Americans—our Olympians—can seriously discuss defying the president of the United States on a national-security issue.” William Simon, a former Treasury Secretary to Richard Nixon, and member of the US Olympic Committee
THE TENSIONS OF THE COLD WAR
Tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States had brewed for years, and the invasion of Afghanistan was just the next climax of a troubled history. It was the epitome of the Cold War where the two greatest superpowers on the earth battled behind closed doors to win a war for which neither wished to be blamed. The major issue was always that whilst playing the game, neither knew what rules by which the other was playing.
For the Americans, they had protested when the Russians had thrown their weight around whilst the Russians, with their buildup of military equipment and power was gaining the type of international recognition that allowed them to occasionally nip into another country who were having a little local difficulty and just get it sorted like in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and now Afghanistan.
The White House and in particular National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, objected to such incursions. “Afghanistan is the seventh state since 1975 in which communist parties have come to power with Soviet guns and tanks, with Soviet military power and assistance,” Brzezinski told his President.
From such a stance the boycott gathered traction until, despite Carter feeling chills down his spine, it became a national policy and he agreed with a suggestion that the US should stay away from the Moscow Olympics. Initially, I believe it came from the West German Ambassador to NATO, Rolf Paul. And so, the scene was set for posturing; and nobody postured better than the Americans, apart from the Russians. Voguing on a global scale was in long before Madonna made her money out of it.
Unsurprisingly the American people supported the move. That was, apart from one section of American society – the athletes who were due to go and compete at the Games!
I must admit some sympathy for their view. The sight of Jesse Owens winning at the 1936 Olympiad, and doing so in the shadow of the Nazi propaganda exercise, punctured the vision being promulgated by the German Reich much more effectively than had the athletes stayed at home in protest at the policies of the government hosting the event.
Fortunately for Carter, the media backed his stance and that included Howard Cosell, a colossus in American sports reporting.
But the next question was how would the U.S. Olympic Teams respond?
In any democracy, there shall be those for and those who are against. From the United Kingdom, the concept of for King/Queen and country is well established, however we look across west to the United States of America and see national pride and service at a whole different level. In the UK we do not have the national anthem sung as often nor the oath of allegiance in schools, nor even the flag displayed as prominently in institutions or family homes. So, if the President of the United States tells you to do something, you do it willingly… right?
One Olympian, Bob Mathias who became a four-term congressman for California, but at the time was the director of the Olympic Training Center was conflicted heavily as he was quoted, at the time, as saying, “We’re going to fight to the end. We’re fighting for the life of the Olympic Games. It’s almost too late. I’m afraid it might be. I feel I have no choice but to support the president or be perceived as supporting the Russians. I resent that.” There was a fear that the Olympic movement would not survive this onslaught.
If the home front was problematic, the international public campaign was not a success either. The IOC President Lord KIllanin took exception to the boycott, claiming that when he welcomed the President’s envoy, Lloyd Cutler, “Cutler had not flown in from Washington to discuss, but rather instruct.” As for Muhammad Ali, as we shall saw before, his trip round the thorny issue in Africa, was met with some ridicule.
How was the President and his regime going to claw it all back? Certainly not by opening the Winter Olympics Games in Lake Placid, USA and sending the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in to make a speech. The Winter Olympics, whilst the lesser cousin of the summer games, is by definition, exciting. It was being held in the USA. Hometown crowds were built up and excited for the event ahead. “Let me make my government’s position clear,” Vance said, in the ceremonial opening. “We will oppose the participation of an American team in any Olympic Games in the capital of an invading nation.” It was a naked pitch for the boycott in an event notable for one thing and has an unequivocal statement as its principal: a lack of politics.
The response? “That night was the only time in my life I’ve been embarrassed to be an American. I spent three years fighting in World War II. Nobody has a deeper love of this country than I do, but that was not right to be so derogatory and political when we’re supposed to be welcoming all our guests from around the world.”
Who said it? Phil Wolff, the chief of staff of the Lake Placid games.
In an attempt to try and regain political authority, Carter had legislation drafted to prevent American athletes and the press going to the Olympic Games in Moscow. It was unprecedented even in war time, this level of control being prepared for the President over the media. There was then the suggestion of holding an alternate Games just after the Olympics, open to athletes from all nations. It never happened.
Then in the Winter Olympics, disaster struck for those who wanted the US Olympic team to boycott the summer Olympics. Sport intervened as the “miracle on ice” when the US ice hockey team beat the Russians showed that sporting endeavor can still cut through political chicanery; just like Jesse Owens did through the Nazi regime.
The boycott was now sullied at home, and it was also being pilloried abroad.
The UK, the US’s biggest ally, was going to attend. So too were France, Spain, Italy and Puerto Rico.
The campaign with the American Olympic Committee now fell into full swing with briefings at the White House. Unfortunately for the administration they were disastrous and made Carter realize that this was no sure thing as he received a lukewarm response, at best, to his pleadings and reasonings.
The United States Olympic Committee now had to approve the boycott and intensive lobbying began. This came after Carter had told them in the White House, that the decision to not go had already been made. In the end they voted to support the President.
It came after William Simon, a former Treasury Secretary to Richard Nixon, who was a member of that committee, made an impassioned plea. He made it a patriotic triumph including the line, “I am somewhat incredulous that a group of mature and what I consider to be among the most patriotic of Americans—our Olympians—can seriously discuss defying the President of the United States on a national-security issue. We aren’t defying a man; we are defying the office, the highest elected office in our land.”
Whilst it won the vote it did not diminish the unease.
Though voting against the President may have been what some would have wished to do, they knew that such an act would have been perceived as pro-Russian and anti-American. God forbid; and he forbade it. The Carter administration were playing hard ball and all the athletes were warned that should they go to Moscow to compete; their passports would be rescinded. Unsurprisingly, no US athlete made the trip. Twenty-five athletes who had the Olympics in their sights were less than enthusiastic ended up suing the government, but they lost.
Other countries, though not sending an official team did allow their athletes to go and quite ironically, Afghanistan fielded a team.
The scene was now set for the next Olympiad. In Moscow, 80 nations were to turn up, compete and witness 36 world records set. As for the boycott – was it successful? The Russians withdrew from Afghanistan ten years later, so no, it was not. Four years after the 1980 boycott at Moscow was the 1984 Olympiad in Los Angeles. And what do you think happened there then?
But before a curtain, iron or otherwise, could be raised on an Olympic Games, the world sat in silence at events which unfurled in Warsaw in March 1980.
AND NEXT TIME…
The world may have gone mad, and the madness may have a root cause in the fight for justice or against evil or for truth and the American way… What the world was not ready for was a tragedy that shook boxing to its core.