March 21, 2006

Soldiers in a Larger War

On this day twenty-six years ago, the American President made the official announcement confirming that the USA would not attend the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. President Carter had set a February 20 deadline for the Soviet Union to pull its troops out of Afghanistan and avoid a boycott.

Carter engaged in extensive arm-twisting to gain support from other nations. Some governments, like those of Great Britain and Australia, supported the boycott but allowed the athletes to decide for themselves whether to go to Moscow. No such freedom of choice was allowed U.S. athletes, as Carter threatened to revoke the passport of any athlete who tried to travel to the USSR. In the end, 65 nations turned down their invitations to the Olympics; probably 45 to 50 did so because of the U.S.-led boycott. (from

Carter is an intelligent man. He must have known, when he set out on this course, that the USSR would not back down because of controversy over a sporting event — even one as important to them as the Olympics. The Soviets did not withdraw from Afghanistan until 1989.

Carter also must have realized that the Soviets would retaliate; after all, isn't that what the Cold War was all about? The US First Strike could only lead to the Mutually Assured Destruction of the 1980 and 1984 Olympic Games.

Map of 1976, 1980, and 1984 boycotts from Wikipedia

Maybe the fact that the boycott was made over a hopeless cause is irrelevant. Maybe the principle, President Carter's stand for what he believed in, was enough justification for the sacrifice. Certainly many people felt that way at the time. (Of course principles, like political administrations, change. The fact that Afghanistan is today occupied by a US-led army is a twist worthy of Orwell.)

One thing I know for certain: the 1980 boycott was a tragedy for sport. The world's best athletes were robbed of an opportunity to meet on the playing field, not once, but twice. Those individuals who were brave enough to publicly oppose the boycott, like Canada's Diane Jones Konihowski, suffered even worse.

To the IOC and the international Olympic movement, these athletes simply do not exist. But in Canada, they hover in a sort of twilight zone. Although the COC joined the boycott on April 22, 1980, they still named 212 athletes (and a flagbearer) to the Olympic team. All of those athletes can be found in the COC's athlete database, distinguished by the soldier's identification: a Name; a Serial Number (database id); and finally a Rank, which is universally denoted by the three letters DNP.

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