POSTED: March 23rd 2016

NEIL WILSON: An Olympic boycott commemorated but not celebrated

US President Jimmy Carter © NY Daily News
US President Jimmy Carter © NY Daily News

THE NEIL WILSON COLUMN / An exclusive, authoritative series from Sports Features Communications

(SFC) I am reminded that there is one of the saddest anniversaries in Olympic history to commemorate. This week in 1980, President Carter announced that the United States would boycott that year's Olympic Games in Moscow.

Few remember now but the idea of a boycott to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan was an idea put forward to Carter by the West German ambassador to NATO, one Rolf Pauls.

It is one of the many ironies that were to surround the furore around this boycott that Pauls' own country had been threatened with the boycott of its 1972 Games in Munich by African nations over the participation of the all-white regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

The fact that the IOC buckled under that threat and expelled the Rhodesian team when it was ensconced already in the Olympic Village in Munich must have persuaded Pauls that threatened boycotts work. How wrong could a man be.

Carter's administration, stirred by its hard-line Cold War national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski's enthusiasm for the idea, swallowed the bait, desperately whipping other countries into line.

Carter even sent world heavyweight champion Muhammed Ali to Africa to drum up support, another of those ironies. Ali himself had "boycotted" the US government's call to enlist for its own invasion of a foreign country, Vietnam, saying at the time "I ain't got no quarrel with those Vietcong."

Ali's mission was a disaster for him and Carter. The boxer was labelled an Uncle Tom there and returned persuaded by Africans that the boycott would not succeed. The Africans knew that from the bitter experience of boycotting the previous Games in Montreal over a New Zealand rugby union tour of apartheid South Africa.

Carter himself was luke-warm on a boycott, as we discovered later from White House notes of their meetings. He said he felt "a cold chill down my spine." Lord Killanin, the IOC president who sought to dissuade him, commented in his autobiography: "Carter and his aides were singularly ill-informed on how the Olympic movement works."

The US eventually persuaded many countries not to participate. Another irony was that among them was Iran, probably the last time the country ever supported the US in anything.

The boycott failed totally in its objective. As the US State Department's archives comment: "In actuality the Soviet-Afghan War continued and did not end until 1989."

It succeeded brilliantly instead in ensuring that the Soviet Union won an incredible 80 gold medals, matching exactly the number of nations that supported its Olympics.

As Julian Roosevelt, an American member of the IOC, said: "I am as patriotic as the next guy but the patriotic thing to do is for us to send a team over there and whip their ass." Because the US did not, it was the Russian who did the whipping.

No actual boycott has ever succeeded in its objective. Holland, Spain and Switzerland boycotted the 1956 Olympic Games but the Soviet forces invading Hungary did not withdraw. Nor did the Israelis take notice of Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon's boycott of that same Games over the invasion of the Suez Canal.

And who remembers that the Soviet Union and its satellite countries were missing from Los Angeles in 1984 in retaliation for the 1980 boycott?

The only losers always are the athletes. The great among them are always remembered:  Kip Keino and Filbert Bayi, both milers, from 1976, world record holders Ed Moses and swimmer Tracy Caulkins from 1980.

But who remembers the greatest Olympic loser of them all: the Egyptian Youssef Nagui Assad. He missed qualification for the shot in 1968 by two centimetres but qualified for the next three. Egypt withdrew its team in 1972 after the Israeli massacre and boycotted the next two.

This year, fortunately, there appears no reason for any country to boycott. There never was a good reason, as this anniversary helps to remind us.

** NEIL WILSON reported his first Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. He has since covered another nine summer and nine winter Olympics for various newspapers, including The Independent and the Daily Mail with whom he has worked for the last 19 years as Athletics and Olympic correspondent. He was Britain's Sports Journalist of the Year in 1984 and is the author of seven books.

Keywords · Olympics · Neil Wilson

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