Opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Moscow, 19 July 1980.
Opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Moscow, 19 July 1980. Wikimedia / Sergey Guneev

When sport was a pawn in the Cold War

Should athletes participate in events held in countries at war or governed by authoritarian regimes? That is the perennial question. Politicians have no qualms about recommending that their sporting associations impose a boycott. However, sport is per se apolitical. That was the backdrop to the West’s boycotting campaign in the run-up to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Simon Engel

Simon Engel

Simon Engel is a historian and is responsible for public relations work at Swiss Sports History.

On 25 December 1979, Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan to bring an end to the civil war and prop up the country’s fragile communist government. A large majority of the international community called for the departure of the Soviets three weeks after having launched their invasion. Only the communist states in the Eastern bloc backed the USSR. In keeping with Cold War logic, the West avoided direct confrontation and, led by the US, supplied money and weapons to the Mujahideen rebels in Afghanistan. As this was done in secret, the West’s official opposition took the form of non-military measures. US President Jimmy Carter reneged on an agreement to supply grain to the Soviet Union, stopped the export of advanced technology for oil production and called on the US Olympic Committee (USOC) to boycott the Moscow Olympic Games in the summer of 1980. The President also requested that allies of the US, especially the western European sporting heavyweights, follow suit. Although many American Olympic athletes publicly opposed the boycott, USOC approved the President’s request by a two-thirds majority, possibly “encouraged” by Carter’s threat to pull the plug on state funding for sport if the US were to send a team to Moscow. In western Europe, meanwhile, the political situation was somewhat more complex.
Russian Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov was sent into internal exile while Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev piously defended the action.
Russian Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov was sent into internal exile while Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev piously defended the action. Following the Soviet invasion, Sakharov called for international pressure to force Soviet withdrawal and advocated boycotting the Games. The Soviet government arrested Sakharov, stripped him of his honorary titles and banished him to Gorky (now Nizhny Novgorod) where he could not be interviewed by western reporters. Library of Congress
In Switzerland, sports governing bodies had no political or public pressure to worry about: the Federal Council stated that sport was not a matter for the national government and that the associations would have to decide themselves whether to attend or not. Moreover, the government was not generally amenable to boycotting as it went against the country’s policy of neutrality. In a survey held in March 1980, 60% of Swiss surveyed opposed a boycott, however in the event of major western European countries staying away, 55% would have been against Switzerland taking part in the Games. Given the prevalent anti-communist and anti-Soviet sentiment throughout the Swiss middle class (and in social democracy to an extent) these findings were somewhat surprising, as the dominant right-of-centre contingent in the parliament backed a boycott, while the left-wing parties opposed it. The press office of the SVP (conservative Swiss People's Party) drew comparisons with the Berlin Games in 1936, which were hijacked by the Nazis for propaganda purposes and concluded: “[...] following the spectacle in Afghanistan, the Russians should not be given the opportunity for self-aggrandizement in Moscow. That would make a mockery of the noble Olympic ideals of sport and bringing people together”. A Social Democratic party (SP) spokesperson told Bern newspaper Bund, that experience had shown “a boycott is not a policy and definitely not a gesture for peace. A peace policy must be designed so that the other party can undo any “mistakes” without losing face. That is exactly what a boycott of the Moscow Games over Afghanistan does not do.” The right-wing parties had nothing to fear by calling for a boycott as any countermeasures from the Soviet Union would have been negligible at best: the USSR accounted for a mere one to two per cent of Swiss foreign trade.
US President Carter's Speech to Olympic Representatives on 21. March 1980. Jimmy Carter Presidential Library / YouTube
The Swiss sports governing bodies were divided: the governing body for sport, known at the time as the Schweizerische Landesverband für Sport (SLS) was actually in favour of a boycott. However, the final decision lay with the Swiss Olympic Committee (SOC), which voted on the issue at its general meeting resulting in a wafer-thin majority (24 to 22 votes) in favour of attending the Games. However, it was up to the associations governing each sport to decide whether they wished to send a team. Those in favour of a boycott argued that the Soviet Union had contravened fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter by invading Afghanistan, adding that the absence of many countries, especially the US, would detract from the quality of the event. Those in favour of attending the Games, on the other hand, argued that staying away ran contrary to the role of sport in promoting peace and bringing people together.
Victory for Switzerland: judoka Joerg Roethlisberger takes middleweight gold.
Victory for Switzerland: judoka Joerg Roethlisberger takes middleweight gold. Keystone
Of the 16 associations involved in Olympic sports, only four actually stayed away from Moscow: gymnastics, fencing, equestrian and shooting. This was perhaps understandable given the right-wing and military traditions in those associations as evidenced by their emphatic rejection during the Cold War of anything coming from Moscow. However, other factors may also have been at play. The conflicting reactions from politics and sport show that Switzerland’s self-image as a haven of neutrality was not universally interpreted in the same way, even with reference to the opposing Cold War blocs. Being neutral does not mean rigidly avoiding taking sides, instead it stands for a geopolitical position defined by the majority: are we neutral because we are going to Moscow despite the US call to join the boycott? Or are we actually legitimising the Soviet invasion by going? It is a matter of political preference.
A US symbol at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games: a spectator waves the American flag during the closing ceremony.
A US symbol at the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games: a spectator waves the American flag during the closing ceremony. Keystone
History tells us that neutrality only works for as long as other countries respect it. During the 1980 boycott campaign, actors in Switzerland considered the decisions of other governments and national Olympic committees (NOC), especially those of their western allies, when defining their own “neutral” stance. While the Federal Council resolutely doubled down on neutrality, some sports associations were more cautious. The Swiss Olympic Committee (SOC) vote preceded a ruling by the Olympic committees of West Germany, Italy and France. However, the SOC preferred to wait until after those countries had voted before taking a final decision. When three sporting heavyweights (the United Kingdom, France and Italy) announced, in the face of major political pressure, that they would attend the Games, the indecisive Swiss associations followed suit. In fact, all the smaller western European nations went to Moscow, apart from Norway, Monaco and Liechtenstein. The only major western European country to boycott the Games was West Germany. Federal Chancellor Helmut Schmidt and the parliament recommended with the backing of a sizeable cross-party majority – in an advisory vote – that their Olympic committee join the boycott. The committee voted shortly after and the outcome was 59 to 40 votes in favour of staying away from the Games. However, this didn’t stop Federal Chancellor Schmidt going on a state visit to the USSR in 1980. Economic ties between the two countries also remained intact, as butter, grain and machines continued to flow freely across their borders.
Olympic marathon runners in the centre of Moscow. Marathon winner Waldemar Cierpinski (GDR) on the left.
Olympic marathon runners in the centre of Moscow. Marathon winner Waldemar Cierpinski (GDR) on the left. Wikimedia / German Federal Archives
In the United Kingdom, the government and parliament (both dominated by the Conservative party) advocated economic sanctions and a boycott. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher threatened the sports associations – as Jimmy Carter had done – with funding cuts if they took part. The British NOC, however, strongly opposed a boycott and had the backing of the public who did not approve of bringing politics into sport. In the end, it was only the sailing, hockey and equestrian associations who decided not to go. Whereas in France, the government and NOC adopted the same position voting against a boycott and only the equestrian association decided not to take part. The French government opted against economic sanctions as it did not want to jeopardise the policy of détente pursued since the 1970s, which was designed to bring about a rapprochement between east and west.
Soviet caricature of the US Olympic boycott.
Soviet caricature of the US Olympic boycott. A Soviet arm protects “Misha”, the harmless Games mascot, from attack by the US. Extract from Rundschau programme of 8 May 1980. SRF
So, what conclusions can western democratic countries such as Switzerland draw from the (in)effectiveness of sporting boycotts based on the half-baked 1980 Olympic episode? Sporting boycotts are normally initiated by political actors (governments, NGOs, political parties), and less often by sporting bodies, whether sports associations or individual athletes. In either instance, the boycotts are not caused by sport itself but by political factors. That is why politics normally leads the boycott debate, whereas the sporting world is more reactive. That may seem justified: sport itself has nothing to do with politics and is therefore purely apolitical. However, this position does not stand up in the cold light of day as failing to adopt a position on a boycott is a political statement in itself. Moreover, sport has always been defined by a triangle: mass (popularity and corresponding media interest), markets (business interests) and power (in the context of social and political interests or influence). Sport is therefore influenced by politics, even if it could be more independent than is currently the case. To avoid cross-examination of its politics, as happened with the American NOC in 1980, sport needs to be more upfront about what it stands for. That could involve, for example, consistently boycotting countries at war, thereby achieving greater credibility. There is definitely room for improvement, as shown by the current stance of the IOC with regard to Russia, for example. However, until that happens the sporting world will be restricted to playing with symbols, for example associations declining to present their national flag and sing the national anthem (Italy, France, the UK and Switzerland plus some other countries did that in Moscow), while political agents call for sporting boycotts when it suits them. The appeal of these boycotts is that they don’t bite as hard as other possible sanctions, while at the same time making a political statement to a large audience.
Rundschau programme from the Soviet Union on the Olympic boycott, 8 May 1980. SRF

Swiss Sports History

This text was produced in collaboration with Swiss Sports History, the portal for the history of sports in Switzerland. The portal focuses on education in schools and information for the media, researchers and the general public. Find out more at

Further posts