Not Everyone is Boycotting the Olympics

On This Date: When Jimmy Carter Announced the Moscow Boycott & Changed Lives

Not Everyone is Boycotting the Olympics

On This Date: When Jimmy Carter Announced the Moscow Boycott & Changed Lives

On this date, March 21, 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced the United States would boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. Years of hard work went unfulfilled. Dreams turned into nightmares. Sadness and anger abounded. The repercussions of the United States’ decision were severe, due to a toxic mix of sports and politics.


There was no proper reaction to the official announcement. The athletes, as was their right, reacted differently, and in fashions that were personally appropriate. Some immediately let the tears flow. Several instantly harbored intense anger. Others sat in disbelief, wondering how such a decision could be made.

An adage that sports and politics do not mix has been uttered for years. Fans want their athletes to play. They want touchdowns. They want goals. They want baskets.

More, citizens don’t need their elected officials to infuse government policy into the games they follow.

Yet, when President Jimmy Carter announced on March 21, 1980 that the United States would not send a delegation to that summer’s Olympics in Moscow, instead choosing to boycott the Games, sports and politics were pureed in the same blender.

President Jimmy Carter. Photo Courtesy:

Upon the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, Cold War tensions between the U.S.S.R. and the United States sizzled.

For Carter, the invasion was an unacceptable overstep of force by the Soviets, and a move that called for a strong response.

With Moscow set to be the focal point of the athletic world in the summer of 1980, Carter felt an American presence would legitimize the Soviet government and its actions. The consequence was an American boycott of the Olympic Games.

“It is absolutely imperative that we and other nations who believe in freedom and who believe in human rights and who believe in peace let our voices be heard in an absolutely clear way, and not add the imprimatur of approval to the Soviet Union and its government while they have 105,000 heavily armed invading forces in the freedom-loving and innocent and deeply religious country of Afghanistan,” Carter said.

In its decision to refrain from competing in the 22nd Olympiad, the United States was joined by more than 60 other nations.

Still, what may have been deemed as the politically correct move left thousands of athletes, from swimming, track and field, gymnastics and beyond, emotionally crippled.

While Carter may be known for his generosity wielding a hammer on behalf of Habitat for Humanity during his post-Oval Office days, the former president also used that tool – in a figurative sense – on athletes’ dreams.

Pain and Agony

With the 1980 Games on the horizon, the United States looked every bit prepared to continue its dominance.

Despite the surge of East Germany, which was believed to be and later confirmed to be influenced by a systematic doping program, Team USA left the 1978 World Championships with a strut.

Not only did the United States capture 20 of the 29 gold medals on offer, its 36 overall medals were 23 more than the Soviet Union managed for runnerup honors.

A year later, the roll continued at the Pan American Games, where the United States won all but one of the 29 events. In the process, the s of Jesse Vassallo, Mary T.

Meagher and Cynthia Woodhead set world records, their confidence boosted for the upcoming biggest moment of their careers.

Of course, that eagerness to shine on the international stage was replaced by heartache and what-if questions.

Brian Goodell. Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse

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.

A second Olympiad offered Goodell the chance to repeat.

Stronger and more mature, Goodell was at the peak of his career as he prepared for Moscow, and the American also yearned for the chance to clash with Vladimir Salnikov, a rising star from the Soviet Union who won world titles in the 400 free and 1500 free in 1978.

But instead of a showdown with Salnikov, Goodell was left to watch the Soviet break 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.

“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.

While Goodell was looking to solidify his Olympic legacy, Vassallo and Craig Beardsley saw Moscow as the chance to make their initial Olympic imprints. A year before the 1980 Olympics, Beardsley throttled his competition in the 200 butterfly at the Pan American Games. With each meet, Beardsley was improving, to the point where an Olympic title was more ly than not.

Although the announcement of the boycott was devastating, Beardsley forged on with his career. He set his first world record in the summer of 1980, producing a time that would have won gold in Moscow by more than a second.

A year later, Beardsley lowered his world record again, and a repeat of his Pan Am title followed in 1982. But at the 1984 Olympic Trials, Beardsley watched his Olympic dream vanish, as he finished third in the 200 butterfly.

The effort left Beardsley off the team that would compete in Los Angeles.

“The lesson I learned from that was actually a very good life lesson,” Beardsley said. “Sometimes, you do everything in your power, you do everything you’re supposed to do, but sometimes things are just your control. You’ve got to learn to put that behind you, let it roll off your shoulders, and just move on.”

Move on was what Vassallo planned after the boycott robbed him of multiple medal opportunities. At the 1978 World Championships, Vassallo was a leading force, capturing gold in the 200 backstroke and 400 individual medley, in addition to claiming silver in the 200 medley. At the 1979 Pan Am Games, Vassallo doubled in the medley events and was the silver medalist in the 200 backstroke.

Had Carter not implemented the boycott, Vassallo was in line to be a highly decorated Olympian. He let the president know that fact when he visited the White House, along with fellow boycott victims, after the 1980 Olympics concluded.

“(Carter) reached out to shake my hand and he said ‘How would you have done in Moscow?’” Vassallo recalled. “And I said, ‘I would have won two golds and a silver.’ And he just gave me this (pained) look. He didn’t ask anybody else that question.”

Jesse Vassallo. Photo Courtesy: Chris Georges

Vassallo sought redemption in 1984 and qualified for the Olympics in the 200 backstroke and 400 medley. By that time, however, Vassallo was beyond his peak years, and his ninth-place finish in the backstroke and fourth-place effort in the 400 IM left him short of the medal that would have been a near guarantee four years earlier.

“I kept swimming, but it wasn’t the same,” Vassallo said. “(1984) wasn’t a piece of cake. But I didn’t want to finish my career without being an Olympian.”

A Measure Of Redemption

The boycott of the 1980 Games can be categorized as a robbery of sorts. Yet, for some athletes, there was a sense of atonement. No, they never were fully repaid for what was lost in Carter’s decision, but they eventually realized a moment of Olympic glory atop the medals podium.

Photo Courtesy: Anefo / Antonisse, Marcel

In some eyes, Tracy Caulkins is viewed as the greatest female swimmer in history, her versatility spectacular in nature. At the 1978 World Championships, Caulkins was sensational, setting world records en route to victories in the 200 butterfly and both medley disciplines.

More, she was the silver medalist in the 100 breaststroke and helped a pair of American relays prevail. The possibility of replicating those results certainly existed, until the boycott was announced. From that point, Caulkins was forced to look ahead to the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

While she was not as dominant as she once was, Caulkins captured gold medals in the 200 medley and 400 medley and as a member of the 400 medley relay.

Still, there was lingering frustration over the boycott.

“What really hits home to me about the boycott was the Soviets didn’t pull Afghanistan for nine years,” Caulkins said. “Did it put any pressure on them? No. It was just a missed opportunity for many athletes. It just doesn’t seem fair.”

If there was a negative to Caulkins’ 1984 performance, it was found in the competition she faced in Los Angeles. In retaliation for the United States’ boycott of 1980, the Eastern Bloc nations – most notably East Germany and the Soviet Union – boycotted the 1984 Olympics, consequently weakening the fields across all sports.

Rowdy Gaines. Photo Courtesy: Tim Morse

From a medal-winning standpoint, Caulkins was accompanied by Rowdy Gaines and Mary T. Meagher as athletes whose 1980 injustice was somewhat assuaged.

Gaines collected three gold medals in 1984, including the title in the 100 freestyle.

As for Meagher, whose butterfly prowess was untouchable, she doubled in the 100 and 200 fly events and helped the United States to gold in the 400 medley relay.

“I felt physically at my peak in 1980 – and mentally up, too,” Gaines said. “It was tough, really tough. I had a chance for four golds. It was a long four years. There were a lot of peaks and valleys. I almost quit a few times.

In fact, I actually did retire for six months in 1981 just after I finished college, but I couldn’t stay away. I felt something was missing in my life. I looked back and realized it was the Olympics. Just to get a chance to compete.

It was tugging at me.”

many of her American teammates, Cynthia Woodhead (better known as Sippy) also felt the need to remain involved in the sport and chase Olympic glory.

Woodhead was one of the best freestylers the world knew in the late 1970s, and the Moscow Games were supposed to be a shining moment.

When she didn’t get the chance to race in Russia, her decision to forge ahead was admirable, but was not accompanied by the retention of her elite skills.

At the 1984 Games, Woodhead was not the same athlete who once ruled over the 200 freestyle. Although she was able to win a silver medal in her best event, her time was more than a second slower than her personal best. Additionally, Woodhead didn’t get the chance to race the 400 free or 800 free, events that once were staples of her program.

“It was awful,” Woodhead said. “Those four years (between Moscow and Los Angeles) felt 10. It seemed everything went wrong.

But I felt I owed it to myself to compete in 1984, make the team, and actually go to an Olympics, so I pressed on. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t.

It felt I was watching a movie and wishing I could have been there in my top form, at my peak. It certainly wasn’t a highlight of my life.”

Retaliation at a Cost

Vladimir Salnikov. Photo Courtesy: Dutch National Archives

The injustices suffered by the American athletes due to President Carter’s decision were also experienced by Eastern Bloc athletes in 1984. In an act of retaliation against the United States for its boycott of 1980, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the Los Angeles Games. The move could be summed up in a simple statement: “You did it to us. We’ll do it to you.”

Among the athletes caught in this latest political web – his American counterparts – was the Soviet Union’s Vladimir Salnikov. After capturing gold medals in the 400 free and 1500 free at the 1980 Games, Salnikov was expected to defend his crowns in 1984. Instead, he played the role of spectator and figured his Olympic days were over.

However, in similar fashion to several Americans, Salnikov couldn’t allow politics to end his Olympic career.

At the 1988 Games in Seoul, and despite limited expectations, Salnikov won his second Olympic title in the 1500 freestyle.

That evening, as Salnikov entered the dining hall in the Athletes’ Village, approximately 300 fellow Olympians gave the Soviet star a standing ovation for his achievement and perseverance.

“They (political leaders) used us as pawns in their game,” Salnikov said of the boycott which deprived him of a repeat opportunity in Los Angeles. “I was shocked when I heard about the boycott. I felt emptiness inside me.

My first desire was to quit, but after I thought about it, I realized that would only made me feel even worse. And I kept training more intensely than ever before so I could not think of anything else. If I had won in Los Angeles, I probably would have retired soon thereafter.

But I stayed in the sport and won in 1988 when almost everyone had given up on me.”

A Political Mess

Sports have the power to forge bonds. Individuals from different backgrounds and beliefs often come together and cheer for the same team, forgetting their differences. Nearly 40 years ago, however, sports were used in a way that tore at athletes’ dreams.

The boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games by the United States had a different impact on those who were affected. For some, the decision by President Carter served as an ultimate blow to Olympic dreams. Others qualified for the Games four years later, but not before their skills had diminished. Still more were fortunate to be strong enough in their events to claim medals they deeply desired.

As political pawns, the American Olympic hopefuls of 1980 were helpless. What they experienced at the hands of government officials can be considered nothing short of an inescapable checkmate.


Olympic Games Boycotts and Political Events

Not Everyone is Boycotting the Olympics

Spain decided to boycott the Berlin Games, and with labour and socialist groups around the world, organized an alternative event, the People's Olympiad.

However, the event was canceled as the Spanish Civil War broke out.

Ireland boycotted the games following the IAAF expelling an Irish athletics body for refusing to restrict itself to the Irish Free State rather than the island of Ireland.

1956 Melbourne

Lichtenstein, theNetherlands, Spain, and Sweden boycotted the games in protest of the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq also boycotted as a result of the Suez crisis.

The People's Republic of China refused to participate due to the inclusion of the Republic of China (Taiwan).

South Africa was banned by the IOC from taking part due to its oppressive apartheid regime. This ban lasted until 1992. Also, Indonesia and North Korea withdrew after the IOC decision to ban teams that took part in the 1963 Games of the New Emerging Forces.

1968 Mexico City

In Mexico City, 10 days before the Olympics began, students protesting against the government were surrounded by the army who opened fire, killing 267 and injuring more than 1,000. During the Games, American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos were expelled for raising their fists in a “black power” salute on the winners' podium.

1972 Munich

11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage by Palestinian terrorists 'Black September', to protest against the holding of 234 Palestinian prisoners in Israel. The terrorists murdered two of their captives, then, as the result of a bungled rescue attempt by the authorities, the remaining nine captives were killed alongside three of their captors.

1976 Montreal

At the 1976 Games 26 African countries boycotted in response to New Zealand's participation. Earlier that year a New Zealand team had undertaken a three-month rugby tour of segregated South Africa, but the IOC refused to ban them.

Egypt competed for the first three days of the Games before withdrawing in support of the boycott by most other African nations. The Republic of China (Taiwan) team was also barred from entering the country, then allowed to enter if they agreed not to compete as “the Republic of China”.

The Taiwanese considered this unacceptable and withdrew.

1980 Moscow

Due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter called upon the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the Games.

The Olympic Charter requires such committees to “resist all pressures of any kind whatsoever, whether of a political, religious or economic nature,” but theory and practice diverge. The Americans stayed home, and in total 62 countries including West Germany and Japan refused to attend.

In all, 80 nations participated in the Games, down from 122 nations in Munich. The USSR won 195 medals, but allegations of cheating tainted this astonishing result.

1984 Los Angeles

14 countries, including the USSR, boycotted the Games in what was widely seen as revenge for the Moscow Games four years earlier, though the official line was that they had security concerns. Iran and Libya also boycotted the Games for different reasons. Ironically, China chose this year to return to the Games after a 32-year absence.

1988 Seoul

After failing to be recognized as co-host of the Games, North Korea (which was still technically at war with the South) boycotted the Games, with Cuba and Ethiopia joining them in solidarity. However there were no widespread boycotts for the first time since 1972.

1992 Barcelona

It was a rare Olympic Games with no boycotts. The Soviet Union had broken up, and the new Russian republics competed under one banner (unified team). The Berlin Wall had been torn down – so East and West Germany competed together as a united country. South Africa returned to the Games after the end of apartheid and 32 years of sporting isolation.

2008 Beijing

There was talk of a boycott to the Beijing Olympic Games due to China's treatment of the Tibetan people, and other human rights abuses, though no major protest eventuated.


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