An Olympic Medal In Distraction

In 1980, the Soviet Union was changing and evolving. The Soviet people were experiencing new social freedoms and opportunities that they had never had before. While experiencing social liberation, the Soviet Union was also experiencing economic uncertainty, the unpredictability of the Cold War, and major global backlash over the invasion of Afghanistan. I think the perfect example of these opposing aspects of the Soviet Union can be personified in the 1980 Summer Olympic Games. The 1980 Olympic Games were held in Moscow and were set to be a massive spectacle for the Soviet people. Before the games, the Soviet nation had already held numerous carnivals, parades, or celebrations for any and every feat that the Soviet nation accomplished. I believe that these celebrations were a spectacle used for distraction. Every celebration kept the people focused on their social lives and new social freedoms, while also getting them to ignore their economic troubles and looming threat of the Cold War. It also helped to keep their citizens in support of the nation and rallying around national identities. As far as distractions go, the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were set to be the biggest and most costly distraction of them all. The Soviet Union, regardless of any economic issues they were having, focused all of their resources on creating new facilities and making preparations for the Olympic Games. New stadiums were built, training facilities were built, and more hotels were built. The Soviet Union even went as far as building a new airport in Sheremet’evo just for the Olympics. On top of building new structures, roads were freshly paved, trees were planted, and debris and trash was cleaned across the entire city. The Soviet Union was throwing more and more money at the Olympic Games and I think it perfectly represents the complexity of the Soviet Union at the time, in which the social side of the country is evolving and improving, while the outside involvement of the Soviet Union with the rest of the world is complicated and devolving. Even though the Soviet Union was trying to distract their citizens from their problems, their plan worked. According to the Current Digest, the people of the Soviet Union were extremely excited for the Olympic Games and were excited to interact with people from around the world as they came to Moscow. Two-thirds of the Capital’s residents said they would like to interact with foreigners and familiarize them with the Soviet way of life. Polls taken of the Soviet citizens showed that the games had created a favorable and joyous environment in Moscow, proving that the distraction of the games was a success.  Although the games helped the citizens ignore the troubles of the Soviet Union, the outside world was not easily distracted. 55 nations boycotted the games in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Below is a map depicting the countries that boycotted:

Although the outside world protested the games, the Moscow games still very much had the support of their citizens. A reported 5.2 million tickets were sold for attendance of the games, with 3.9 million of those tickets being bought by Soviet citizens. It appears as though the distractions and the celebratory rallies for a Soviet national identity worked, and the Soviet people continued on, seemingly blind to any issues in the Soviet Union.

7 Replies to “An Olympic Medal In Distraction”

  1. Dylan, nice post on the invasion of Afghanistan and resulting boycott of the Olympics! I do have to challenge your final assumption that the Soviet people were blind to any issues in the Soviet Union – I think they knew that (many) issues existed, they just simultaneously felt national pride and loved their homeland.

    1. Thanks for the comment Emma! I do agree with your criticism; I don’t think that I should have put that the people were ‘blind’ to the issues in their country. I should’ve stuck with saying that they were more distracted than anything.

  2. I like the connections you draw between the Olympic boycott and the invasion of Afghanistan, and the map is especially effective as a visual shorthand to the history of Olympic boycotting. And using the Current Digest was a great idea! Make sure and use the “stable URL” so others can find the articles you use. (check the link and you’ll see what I mean).

  3. This post was supering interesting! It reminded of the recent Sochi Olympics, and all the excess/great lengths the Russians went to in terms of infrastructure. It would appear that Olympic development is not restricted to just Russia, I feel as if Brazil recently did the same thing.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ethan! I actually completely forgot about the Sochi Olympics, so thank you for reminding me. I almost put something about the Brazil Olympics in this post because I had the same thought about them using the same tactics.

  4. This post was really interesting! I find it kind of hypocritical that the US would lead a boycott for the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan, when it has a history of invading countries for its own benefit regardless of any casus belli. I really liked the sources talking about how excited the Muscovites were to host the Olympics; it really highlights what I think the Olympics should be, just a competition for all countries to come together and put politics aside.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Bryce! I was glad I found the Current Digest article talking about the excitement of the people because I thought it perfectly summed up how the Olympics worked as a “break” for the people of Russia and the world (that attended).

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