As a young, patriotic American, I was torn by the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. On the one hand, I knew already as an eleven-year-old, long before Ronald Reagan had uttered the phrase, that the Soviet Union was the Evil Empire. Their invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 was not only an act of unjust aggression, it was also the first step of the Soviet leadership’s insidious plan to seize the Persian Gulf, squeeze off the supply of oil, and then easily defeat a weakened America. Knowing all this, as I did, there was no question about whether the U.S. should participate in an Olympics held in the very capital of our enemy. But on the other hand, after the U.S. hockey team’s victory at the Winter Olympics in February 1980, I recognized that by boycotting the summer games, we were giving up our chance to inflict even more humiliating defeats on the Soviets. As spring turned to summer, I found myself wishing that our athletes were going to Moscow—to kick some Soviet butt.
Recent studies of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan make clear that the American view of the invasion as part of Moscow’s plan for world domination was woefully wrong (you can hear interviews with the authors of these books on New Books in History and New Books in Russia and Eurasia). But as Nicholas Sarantakes explains in his diplomatic history of the boycott, Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War (Cambridge University Press, 2010), most Americans did support the withdrawal from the Moscow Games. Jimmy Carter’s announcement of the boycott in January 1980 had near-unanimous approval. And even though this high level of support waned over the following months, especially after the “Miracle on Ice,” a majority of Americans continued to back the boycott. Outside of the United States, however, the boycott was a fiercely contested issue. Much of Nick’s book describes clumsy American diplomacy and debates within countries such as Britain and Australia, whose governments declared support for their U.S. allies while national Olympic committees refused to submit to Washington’s wishes.
The boycott was a diplomatic flop, one that revealed the bumbling of the Carter Administration as well as the personal intransigence and heavy-handed politics of Jimmy Carter. Several allies of the U.S. sent their athletes to Moscow. And the Games did go on, with a good measure of success. At the same time, though, the Moscow Games and the boycott are a turning point in the contemporary history of the Olympics. This summer’s Olympics in London will be a lucrative, made-for-TV spectacle of international tourism and corporate sponsorship (with some high-quality athletics at the center, of course). But the good will and high revenues of London 2012 would not have been possible without the muddle of 1980.