Olympic Boycotts Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In boycotting the Olympic Games in 1980 and 1984, respectively, the United States and the Soviet Union used the occasion of the Olympics to display their own political views.

Summary of Event

The Soviet Union was the first communist country to host the Summer Olympics. The twenty-second Olympiad was conducted from July 19 to August 13, 1980, in Moscow. The Soviet Union invested nine billion dollars to host the Olympic Games, probably the most important event for the Soviet Union since World War II. The Soviet Union was going to use the Games to showcase the nation’s achievements to the world. Olympic Games;boycotts Summer Olympic Games, boycotts [kw]Olympic Boycotts (Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984) [kw]Boycotts, Olympic (Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984) Olympic Games;boycotts Summer Olympic Games, boycotts [g]North America;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [g]Soviet Union;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [g]Europe;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [g]United States;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [g]Russia;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [c]Cold War;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] [c]Sports;Mar. 21, 1980, and May 8, 1984: Olympic Boycotts[04090] Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Olympics boycott Kane, Robert Andropov, Yuri Chernenko, Konstantin Reagan, Ronald [p]Reagan, Ronald;Olympics boycott

On December 24, 1979, the Soviet Union began an invasion of Afghanistan. Soviet Union;invasion of Afghanistan The United States officially condemned the invasion. On January 20, 1980, President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter to Robert Kane, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), in which he requested that Kane submit a proposal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have the venue of the twenty-second Olympiad changed if the Soviet Union did not withdraw military forces from Afghanistan. In addition, Carter stated that the United States would not send a team to the Games if the IOC did not adopt the proposal. On February 12, 1980, the IOC stated that the twenty-second Olympiad would be held in Moscow as planned.

President Carter issued an ultimatum: The United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan by February 20, 1980. The withdrawal did not take place. In addition to boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games, Carter called for trade restrictions on Soviet grain and high-technology products. The official statement announcing that the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympic Games was issued on March 21, 1980.

President Carter’s decision to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games was motivated by the impact that an American pullout would have on the economics of the Moscow Games. The absence of American media coverage of the Games would lead to a major economic setback, as the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) was to give 152 hours of programming to the Moscow Games. Its advertising time was almost sold out, at $190,000 a minute. In addition, the boycott of the Games was representative of American public opinion toward Soviet political actions. However, there was no realistic belief that the boycott of the Olympic Games would put pressure on the Soviet Union to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

On the international level, a total of fifty-eight countries joined the American boycott of the Olympics, including West Germany, Japan, China, and Canada. However, a number of Western European nations sent athletes to participate in Moscow. In Great Britain, the government advised the British Olympic Authority (BOA) to boycott the Games, but on March 25, the BOA voted to accept attendance to the Moscow Games. Other Western European nations, including France, Greece, Italy, Spain, Sweden, and Finland, did not boycott.

As a result of the U.S.-led boycott, the Moscow Olympics had the lowest number of participating nations since the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games. Only eighty-one nations participated, but more world records were set in the Moscow Olympics than in the 1976 Games held in Montreal. The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics cost the Soviet Union an estimated $400 million in lost tourism and investment.

Four years later, the Summer Olympics were scheduled to be held in Los Angeles, California—the only city that bid to host the 1984 Summer Games. The Los Angeles Olympics were devoid of municipal funding, because the citizens of Los Angeles had voted five to one not to use any local taxes for the Games. Under the leadership of Peter Ueberroth, Ueberroth, Peter president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee, the Games were supported solely by funds from the private sector for the first time.

From a political perspective, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were tarnished by the Soviet Union’s call for an Eastern Bloc boycott of the Games. The Soviet-led boycott of the Los Angeles Games was, for the most part, a political retaliation for the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games.

On February 9, 1984, Soviet premier Yuri Andropov died. Until that time, only minor concerns had been voiced in the Soviet Union about attending the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, and all circumstances indicated that the Soviets would attend the Games. However, when communist hard-liner Konstantin Chernenko took control of the Soviet Union, the issue of a Soviet boycott became more prevalent.

On May 8, 1984, the Soviet Union announced that it would boycott the Summer Olympic Games, citing security problems with sending athletes to Los Angeles. The contention was that Soviet athletes would be harassed and that the safety of the athletes and Soviet officials would be compromised. The boycott had an overriding symbolic meaning, however—the Kremlin’s deepening antagonism toward President Ronald Reagan—that outweighed the supposed security issues. In March, 1983, Reagan had made a speech in which he referred to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.” In addition, Reagan’s approval of deploying new nuclear missiles in Europe during the fall of 1983 did not sit well with many Soviet officials. Prior to the Olympic Games, the Reagan administration had broken off nuclear arms control talks with the Soviets, and this had also influenced the decision. The Soviet boycott was fueled more by attitudes toward American foreign policy under the Reagan administration than by security concerns about athletes attending the Games in Los Angeles.

The Soviet Union and thirteen Eastern Bloc nations boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics. These nations had accounted for 58 percent of the gold medals won in the 1976 Summer Games. The boycotting nations organized a separate sports festival called the Friendship Games. The 1984 Olympic Games were attended by 6,829 athletes from 140 nations. Several communist nations participated, including China, Romania, and Yugoslavia. Romania completed the Games with a national record of fifty-three medals.


Since the inception of the modern Olympic Games in 1896, politics has played a role in the Games a number of times. Despite efforts to keep the international sporting competition free of ideological posturing, nations have often used the Olympics as an international forum for the display of their particular political stances. The boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games are excellent illustrations of some nations’ use of sports for political expression. Olympic Games;boycotts Summer Olympic Games, boycotts

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Albertson, Lisa H., ed. Athens to Atlanta: One Hundred Years of Glory. Salt Lake City, Utah: Commemorative Publications, 1995. Provides an overview of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Espy, Richard. The Politics of the Olympic Games. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1979. Provides a historical account of the political, social, and economic forces that have influenced the conduct of the Olympic Games.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hulme, Derick L. The Political Olympics: Moscow, Afghanistan and the 1980 U.S. Boycott. New York: Praeger, 1990. An examination of the political differences between the United States and the Soviet Union that brought about the 1980 American boycott of the Olympic Games.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Segrave, Jim, and Donald Chu, eds. Olympism. Champaign, Ill.: Human Kinetics, 1981. Collection of essays includes several that discuss the relationship between politics and the Olympic Games.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wilson, Harold E., Jr. “The Golden Opportunity: Romania’s Political Manipulation of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.” Olympika: The International Journal of Olympic Studies 3 (1994): 83-97. Provides an analysis of Romania’s defiance of the Soviet boycott of the Olympic Games.

Détente with the Soviet Union

Comăneci Receives the First Perfect Score in Olympic Gymnastics

Soviet Union Invades Afghanistan

U.S. Hockey Team Upsets Soviets

U.S.-Soviet Summit

Soviet Troops Leave Afghanistan

Fall of the Berlin Wall

Dissolution of the Soviet Union

Categories: History