Moscow to Sochi: The Legacy of the Russian Olympic Host



On February 7th, the Olympic Games will return to Russia for the first time since the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. Unfortunately, just like the Moscow Games, the Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia are surrounded with controversy. Amid the return of the Olympics, and some calls for a boycott, reminders of the boycott of the Moscow Games by 62 nations are everywhere.

On Christmas 1979, the Soviet Union went into Afghanistan in order to take control of a fledgling socialist government that “had little support from the population” (Invasion). The Soviets installed their own leader who executed the man he replaced. Because the socialist revolution in Afghanistan, headlined by secular policies, was not received well, neither were the Soviets, who rather than the stabilizing force Brezhnev believed they would be, were actually invaders who met aggressive resistance.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was not taken well by not only the West, but also most of the Third World. In January, the U.N. condemned the invasion. And on January 4th President Carter threatened that if the Soviets did not leave Afghanistan the U.S. might not participate in the Olympics and on January 20th, on Meet the Press, he set a deadline of February 20th. If the Soviet military was still in Afghanistan at that time, the United States would boycott the Summer Games in Moscow. He proposed to the IOC that they change locations, postpone, or even cancel the Games, but if not, boycotting Moscow had support from most Americans. In April the decision came down from the U.S. Olympic Committee, under pressure from the Carter Administration, that the U.S. team would stay home for the summer. Carter hoped that more teams would join the Americans, de-legitimizing the Soviet government and their invasion of Afghanistan. Reminded of the legitimization that the 1936 Olympics gave Hitler, even with Jesse Owens win, the White House was joined in its push to boycott Moscow by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. But the British Olympic Committee voted to go to Moscow against her wishes.

Among countries that joined the U.S. boycott were Canada, West Germany, Israel, Egypt, and Iran; although Britain, France, and Australia sent teams to Moscow. Pravda called the boycotting nations Olympic “enemies” asserting that Carter was holding the USOC and American athletes hostage to his politics while also blasting the organizational “failure” of the Lake Placid Winter Games earlier in the year (although they were probably just still bitter about Miracle on Ice). But the Moscow Games were not the success that the Kremlin had hoped. With the 62 abstentions, only 81 nations competed, and during the Opening Ceremonies 16 teams stayed in the Olympic Village rather than march in the Parade of Nations. The conflict in Afghanistan heightened security threats, leading to an Olympic village that felt more like “a prison camp than a residence for some of the world’s finest athletes” (Fimrite). In addition, two million Muscovites were forced out of the city and Soviet tourists were not allowed in for the duration of the Games. The Olympics usually bring massive foreign tourism to the host city and country, but less than half of the originally predicted tourists came to Moscow.

But the Games went on leaving only a slightly tainted legacy. Four years later the Soviet bloc would boycott the Summer Olympics in L.A. The Soviet military would remain a presence in Afghanistan until 1989, right before the USSR dissolved, making Carter’s goal of the boycott to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan a failure (possibly for the better since the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was a significant factor in their downfall, then again it gave rise to the mujahideen). All the events sold out and athletes realized their dreams of representing their countries in the Olympics. Except for those of the 62 nations who boycotted, who worked their whole lives to compete in the Olympics and were not allowed to, leaving a ugly stain on the Carter Administration and the USOC.

This is what makes the possibility of boycotting the Sochi Games nonexistent. Criticism of the IOC on giving Sochi the 2014 Olympics is well founded. The city has a subtropical climate and the nearby mountains don’t get much snow, making the organizers jobs that much harder and this the most expensive Olympics of all time. But up to $30 billion of the $51 billion budget has mysteriously disappeared (organized crime is rampant in the former Soviet Union). And Sochi lies close to the Caucuses, people ethnically different from Russians but historically subjected to their governance, persecution, and invasive wars. The area has had a recent Islamic enlightenment that because of wars with Russia have led to a rising tide of extremism. The Olympics are a perfect target for terrorist attacks larger than the Chechen Tsarnaev brothers bombing at the Boston Marathon or the many attacks throughout Russia each year. The calls for boycott, however, stem from the recent anti-gay laws. Putin and the Duma have made it illegal to recognize “the mere existence of LGBT people in any public forum” and can give “two-week jail sentences for any tourist suspected of being gay” (Zirin). This follows a continuing national crackdown on the LGBT community and puts LGBT athletes(prominently gold medalist figure skater Jimmy Weir), coaches, administrators, and fans in actual mortal danger. How the IOC and Russian authorities will handle the imminent protests remains to be seen. Because the U.S. did not compete in Moscow, the protests of Soviet involvement in Afghanistan were limited, but the protests in Sochi could upend the Games, and in addition to all the other surrounding problems, these Olympics are shaping up to be a disaster that will make Moscow look like a model Olympics.


Sources: (list of non-participating countries)

4 thoughts on “Moscow to Sochi: The Legacy of the Russian Olympic Host

  1. Awesome, awesome, awesome post! I think that this is flawless, and I’ll be sure to recommend it for the Student Choice Award this week! To start off, I think you used excellent sources, both primary and modern. I also love how you were able to relate issues that are relevant today to Soviet History. I very much enjoyed the comparisons you drew out between the two Olympic Games, and I think that your concerns about the Sochi games are definitely warranted. Again, great job this week!

  2. This was a really great post. Besides the fact that I’m a total Olympic junkie, the way that you were able to expand on the Moscow Olympics module and include all of the information and ties to the Sochi Olympics made for an interesting article. In addition, I think the debate of boycotting the Olympics on political principles is well founded. Like you said, many believed that not boycotting gave Hitler legitimacy, but the boycott in 1980, did not change much either. I think that its actually very sad that the athletes who had trained their whole lives did not get a chance to compete. On the other hand, the possible boycott of the Sochi Olympics is because of real fear from terrorists and the anti-LGBT laws, which makes more practical sense but would still be pretty sad.

  3. Terrific post and comments here! I like the way you use the Moscow Olympics to talk about the role of international sports competitions in global politics more broadly. As an aside on this topic, I worked as a line cook with a wonderful decathlete who placed 12th in the 1980 Olympic trials. Timing is everything.

  4. I love how you are comparing Moscow to Sochi and bringing the global competition issue to present day. Great post!

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