Exactly 40 years ago (you know, back in the dark ages before cell phones, cable and the Internet), the Olympics in Moscow went on without Team USA. The U.S administration, led by President Jimmy Carter, had decided to sit the Games out in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Other nations followed, in what might have been one of the most unpopular, not to mention fruitless, decisions of that generation.
The move still rankles, and IOC president Thomas Bach (an athlete denied his chance of participating in 1980) says boycotts serve no purpose and, aware of the hot political climate, is warning nations today not to make the same mistakes.
The cautionary words came in mid-July, during an online IOC session. In his comments, Bach stated not only that boycotts of Games were a danger but they only hurt athletes and achieve little politically.
He later clarified, noting that he was not specifically referring to threats related to the Beijing Winter Games, although his original comments had related to China’s treatment of Uygur Muslims. (Bach had stated he was confident China would uphold human rights amid criticism of its stance on Hong Kong).
But if there were ever a person who understood the futility of boycotts, it would be Bach, a fencer on the West German Olympic Team. According to Inside the Games, the West German Government decided, along with many others, to boycott in order to protest the Soviet invasion. It was fruitless then and it remains fruitless to this day, added Bach.
"The Soviet army stayed nine more long years in Afghanistan after the boycott. A sporting boycott only punishes the athletes of the boycotting country and deprives their people of sharing in the success, pride and joy of their Olympic team. The only political effect the boycott of 1980 had was to trigger the revenge boycott at the following Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984."
If the U.S. has a hard time relating to Thomas Bach, it might understand the situation better if it is viewed through the lens of its own athletes.
The Washington Post notes, “Forty years later, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team is a team in name only. The athletes never actually competed, their dreams sacrificed to geopolitical affairs that remain controversial four decades later.”
An article in Swimming World reflected on the unfairness of the move to athletes, including Brian Goodell. “For Brian Goodell, Moscow was supposed to be an opportunity to cement his distance legacy. At the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, a 17-year-old Goodell won the 400 freestyle and 1500 freestyle in world-record time and was a member of an American men’s squad that won all but one event and is considered the greatest team the sport has seen.”
But rather than being able to go head-to-head with Vladimir Salnikov, a rising star from the Soviet Union who won world titles in the 400 free and 1500 free in 1978, Goodell was left to read in the news about the Soviet who had broken his world record and become the first man in history to crack the 15-minute barrier in the 1500 freestyle. Left to wonder what could have been, Goodell still cannot reconcile Carter’s decision, which had a long-ranging impact upon him.
“I was 17 in Montreal,” Goodell once said. “In Moscow, I would have been 21 and in the prime of my career. And zippo. (Carter) screwed with everybody’s lives. I could have made some pretty good coin. It really did screw me up. It totally derailed me and changed my life. I didn’t know what to do with myself. My life took a totally different path than what I had expected. I was pretty clearly depressed. I couldn’t get up in the morning. Never got help, but I should have. I’ve tried to forget it a zillion times, but I’m still disgusted.”
Goodell is not the only athlete to be affected, obviously. There are dozens of stories, all of them embodying the discouragement of training for years, only to have a chance at greatness fall victim to a political land-grab.
“What really hits home to me about the boycott was the Soviets didn’t pull out of Afghanistan for nine years,” said Tracy Caulkins, another Team USA member whose dreams went unfulfilled. “Did it put any pressure on them? No. It was just a missed opportunity for many athletes. It just doesn’t seem fair.”
To this day, former President Carter will not comment on the decision.
Moscow made certain the worldwide TV audience knew Russia did not particularly care about the boycott. A message was aired from cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin, who offered a greeting from the Salyut 6 space station.
"Through the portholes of our station we see Greece, motherland of the Olympics, and Moscow where the cream of the Olympic Movement has gathered now," they said. "The continents you represent are flashing past us down below. Let the Olympic Flame of friendship be always bright on earth. Let people have rivalry only in sports arenas."
Those were wise words, although they were not always heeded. Over the years, the Olympics has become a battleground. Between cities backing away from the bidding table to athletes objecting to not being able to lodge peaceful protest moves such as taking a knee or raising a fist, it seems the Games are never short on illustrations of conflict. (Remember the days when the U.S. not hosting the 1976 Games in Colorado was considered “the most appalling snub in Olympic history?” Good times.)
And today, with myriad pressure weighing down on world leaders – from human rights concerns to economic woes – many athletes are just as discouraged, and their national Olympic committees fear political reprisal.
And Bach (as well as Japanese Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita, both of whom were denied their chances in 1980) said nobody should have to suffer from what they, and others, learned the hard way. But the threat is there. Bach says there have been some calls for a boycott of China at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in light of the alleged treatment of Uyghur Muslims and Hong Kong's new security law.
"In some people's minds, the ghosts of the past are rearing their ugly heads," Bach said. “Boycotts and discrimination because of political background or nationality are once again a real danger. It appears that today some just do not want to learn anything from history. This should never happen again to future generations of athletes, and this is what still drives me today to give all the clean athletes of the world the chance to participate in Olympic Games."