When coronavirus body slammed the world, the IOC and the government of Japan postponed the Tokyo2020 Olympics and Paralympics as the global economy stood punch drunk in the corner, tagged with constant jabs and body blows.
As we approach the end of the year, as infection rates continue to soar, a ray of hope has appeared in the form of newly developed vaccines. Will that ray of hope grow into that light at the end of the tunnel IOC president Thomas Bach desperately wants to see?
I hope so.
As a footnote, my own 2020 was not a total bust – the Japanese version of my book was published, and I appeared in A&E History Channel’s documentary, Tokyo Legacy, which is about the history of Tokyo from 1945 to 2020. While I was not so prolific this year in my blog, I did write a number of original articles I am proud of.
In 1964, Japan was preparing an extravaganza for the world, and they just had to get it right. Over 5,000 athletes from over ninety nations were coming to Tokyo. So were thousands of government and sports officials, members of the press, coaches, athlete-family members and sports fans from all parts of the world. If they could show the world that they were peace-loving, Western-like, modern and eager to contribute, then they could stand tall with the other great nations of the world.
Only two decades before, the Japanese were considered Asian upstarts, aggressors, and in some parts, cruel barbarians who would die for the Emperor without a thought. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics was the biggest coming-out party in Asian history, and Japan wanted to change perceptions, and look its absolute best.
Hundreds of known pickpockets were plucked off the streets by police months in advance. Gangs were prevailed upon to send their scarier-looking yakuza out of town. Signs were posted around the city declaring that urinating in the streets or littering would not be tolerated. Bars were closed by midnight. Taxi drivers were advised to drive with “proper traffic manners.” Local citizens brushed up their English and, overcoming their normal reticence, proactively sought out foreign visitors who looked as though they might need guidance. For a while, “May I help you?” was the most commonly heard phrase on the streets.
Stories abounded about the lengths to which the Japanese hosts went to look after visitors in need of help. To rescue an Australian couple who had lost bullet train tickets to Kyoto, their hotel voucher and a notice of remittance so they could pick up cash at a local bank branch, the manager of the Japan Travel Bureau at the pier where they docked raised money from his own staff to buy new train tickets, called the hotel and arranged for the couple to stay without the voucher, and made arrangements with the bank so the cash would be made available.
When a European prince reported his Dunhill tobacco pouch lost at the equestrian event at Karuizawa, an entire Self-Defense Force platoon combed the 33-kilometer course and found the pouch in less than an hour. A journalist who had dropped his signed traveler’s checks—in a nightclub as it turned out—got them back after the Mama-san spent two days tracing and deciphering his illegible scrawl, and then rang the hotels and the Press House before finally discovering to whom they belonged.
Billy Mills, hero of the 10,000-meter event, also came in for some of Japan’s famous omotenashi (hospitality). As a Native-American subjected to his own share of suffering back home, he empathized with his hosts:
In Japan, I saw people who were so courteous and polite. I knew underneath there had to be this anger. I could relate to the pain. Almost a sacredness of the way they contained the pain, and the respect they showed. They were like the elders I knew, who controlled their pain, and still showed respect to others.
Mills and his wife, Pat, had plans to return to the United States a day before the end of the games and so would not be joining the USOC-arranged transport to the airport. When the USOC refused to make any special arrangements for Billy—an amateur with little discretionary cash in his pocket—he turned to his Japanese hosts, who expressed surprise that the Americans would not take care of a gold medal winner and one of their biggest stars.
They picked up our bags, and put them in the largest, widest limousine I had ever seen, with Japanese and Olympic flags up front and an American flag on the back. We took off with two motorcycles escorting us to the airport. We left Japan in style.
The XVIII Olympiad was Japan’s big test. And if they passed, they thought, the world would welcome them back with open arms. And they did indeed pass that test, thanks to a stunning alignment of purpose across government, corporations, educational institutions, and local neighborhoods. As Azuma Ryūtarō, Tokyo governor and member of both the IOC and Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, wrote in 1965:
One of the intangible legacies of the Tokyo Olympics is that it gave Japanese people the opportunity to be united for the first time since World War II. Additionally, the Tokyo Olympics succeeded in playing a vital role in connecting the East and West in terms of worldwide peace and sports. As a result, the world began to show greater respect for Japan and its people.
Seventeen-year-old Dick Roth, winner of the individual medley race at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, was thirteen years old when he first travelled with the US swim team to Japan in 1960. He remembers being treated like a celebrity. Toward the end of his stay, the team went to Nikko, the beautiful resort town not far from Tokyo. And while walking about the woods with the team, he saw something he clearly remembers today.
I wandered off on my own, which was a habit I have when I travel, skipping the handlers. I was walking back to the lodge and I came face to face with a group of eight to ten horribly disfigured children of my age, probably older. They were from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Later I talked with one of my handlers and asked about them. He said they were also on a tour. The organizers were trying to keep us apart. I was shocked and horrified. To think anyone could do anything so barbaric. I know we dropped the bomb to shorten the war. But it’s a visceral feeling I will never forget.
Back in Tokyo four years later, Roth also remembers the Opening Ceremonies when a sole torchbearer ran into the National Stadium. “The torchbearer came in and there was cheering and a kind of reverence. I don’t know what to call it. The attention was locked on this individual. I was stunned by the switch in the crowd. He got to the top and turned around. It was like another one of those moments that defies description. When he stood there and held the torch high, I was stunned.”
Roth was referring to Yoshinori Sakai, who was born in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, the day an atomic bomb was dropped on his city. “When he reached the bottom of the stairs he didn’t stop, just ran up the stairs in stride. He only paused at the top, turning to face the full stadium and the world. He then turned and lit the flame, causing an entire nation a collective moment of pride and sadness.”
It was a bold move. For a country that was trying desperately to erase from its collective memory the horrors of World War II, the Olympic organizers risked offending the United States of America by reminding the world that Japan was the first and only country to be attacked by nuclear weapons.
In fact, prominent Japanophile and translator of such classics as The Tale of Genji, American Edwin Seidensticker, said that the selection of Sakai as the final torchbearer was not “incidental,” and was “unpleasant to Americans.”
When G. D. Sondhi of India, a member of the International Olympic Committee who had just witnessed Sakai’s torch lighting at the opening ceremonies, was asked to comment on Seidensticker’s reaction, he replied, “He (Sakai) is good and I’m happy to see him do it so nicely. We must bring young people in the Olympics and let those old men just sit and help them.” Sondhi went on to say that he did not think Sakai’s selection to be political, and rather thought that Sakai represented “a big hope” for Japan, and that his was “the most touching of all Olympic ceremonies I ever saw.”
Still, it’s amazing that the organizers, on Japan’s biggest day, consciously chose to highlight Hiroshima via Sakai—whom the press dubbed “Atomic Bomb Boy”—a poke in the ribs of the United States.
“Imagine coming out of a subway station in New York and all you see is horizon,” said Jan Palchikoff. That was her way of imagining what her father witnessed when he arrived in Hiroshima a few weeks after it was flattened by the first atomic bomb ever used in military conflict.
Jan was an Olympic rower who competed in the double sculls at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, one of nearly 400 who competed on Team USA. But her story of why she competed as an American is distinctly unique.
In 1942, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor at the end of 1941, Jan’s father, Nikolay, was 17 years old and he wanted to join the US Army. He had emigrated to America in 1940, attended high school in Los Angeles and then worked odd jobs as a janitor and sales before answering the call for army recruits.
He wasn’t even an American citizen. But he did speak fluent Japanese and Russian.
Nikolay eventually made his way to the Pacific theater, lent out to the Navy to question Japanese soldiers and listen in on radio conversations in Japanese. He did intelligence work in New Caledonia and the Philippines, roaming the seas in an American naval convoy as kamikaze pilots and Mitsubishi G4M bombers attacked.
When Japan surrendered, Nikolay was sent to Japan to help seek out safe places for American troops to land in the Tokyo area to ensure the safety of the Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers, General Douglas MacArthur, for the surrender ceremony. And when MacArthur oversaw the signing of the instrument of surrender on the USS Missouri, Nikolay watched from a higher perch on the USS General Pershing, which was docked next to the Missouri.
With his primary duty in Japan done, Nikolay insisted that he be allowed to go to Hiroshima. Only one month after the atomic bomb was dropped on that city, the Army intended to send him to Korea, and was reluctant to send a random American soldier over 800 kilometers to the Western part of Japan which was not yet considered safe and secure.
But Nikolay was insistent. After all, Hiroshima was where he was born, and where his parents were.
Nikolay’s father, Sergei Palchikoff, was a Tsarist from Kazan, Russia, who fought the Communists across Imperial Russia before commandeering a ship in Vladivostok and escaping to Japan. Sergei and a few other Russian families ended up staying in Hiroshima.
A jarring fixture in Hiroshima, the Caucasian Palchikoffs stood out in the Japanese streets. Sergei made his way and built up social capital by teaching violin in an all-girls school, as well as teaching Russian and English.
Nikolay was born in Hiroshima, feeling at home playing Japanese war games with his neighborhood friends. As he said in this Japanese article, “When I lived in Hiroshima, I had many friends and I had never been treated as a foreigner. I was accepted as a single Hiroshima person – swimming, fishing in the river, riding around the city by bicycle.”
However, as the 21-year-old approached Hiroshima on the train, he began to realize that his hometown would not be the same. His train passed the Kurii Naval Base and “you could see that all the Japanese ships were rusting, turned over” as Kurii had been shelled “for three days and nights. And I thought, “My god, Hiroshima couldn’t possibly be worse than this. And I was wrong.”
There was of course, nothing alive, no plants. No birds chirping. In Japan, there are these cicadas, and they make noise all day long. They’re up in the trees, and we used to try to catch them. Nothing. Dead silence. And I approached my house. There was nothing there, except my wrought-iron bed is used to sleep in, so I knew I was at the right place.
Nikolay could not find his family amidst the rubble. When he encountered one of the Parasuchin’s, one of the few other Russians living in Hiroshima, Nikolay was informed that the Russians were rounded up by the police and had taken them all to the mountainside. Whatever the reason for that, the Palchikoff’s were not in the central part of Hiroshima when the bomb hit. In fact, Nikolay’s parents, as well as his brother, David, and sister, Kaleria, were still alive!
The Palchikoffs were moved to a town called Taishaku away from the bomb blast and the initial spray of radiation. As far as the family in Hiroshima knew, their eldest son was in high school in America. But then one day, he shows up on their doorstep in a uniform, one of the first American soldiers to appear in Hiroshima.
It is hard to fathom the emotions of such a reunion. Most of this narrative is taken from an interview of Nikolay in May, 2003. In the parts of the transcript where Nikolay is describing his return to Hiroshima, you can see the word “Cries” in brackets, where Nikolay apparently would be talking through his tears.
Nikolay’s sister, Kaleria, was interviewed shortly after the end of the war, her memories an example of the horrors the people of Hiroshima witnessed. In this excerpt, broadcasted on NPR, she described her shock at seeing people whose skin color were burned dark by the blast, and the subsequent radiation sickness that befell them.
We saw Negroes. They weren’t Japanese. They were Negroes. I asked them what happened to them. ‘We saw the flash and this is the color we turned.’ We reached the military hospital. I stayed there for two days. There were people wounded, badly wounded. The skin just peeled off. Some of them you could see the bone. The eyes were closed, the nose bled, the lips swelled, the whole head started swelling. As soon as they gave them water, they vomited it all out, and they would keep on vomiting until they died. On the second day, the wounds became yellow in color, and it would go deeper and deeper. No matter how much you tried to take off the yellow rotten flesh it would go deeper and deeper.
Nikolay had to return to duty back in Tokyo, and then in Korea. In the meanwhile, he made sure that his parents and siblings got safe transport back to Tokyo. He was also able to get his father a job in the Officers’ Club in Tokyo. In January, 1946, Nikolay was allowed to return to the United States, and he was able to bring his family with him.
After returning stateside, Nikolay had an appendicitis attack and went to the hospital, where he had his appendix removed, and his heart stolen by a nurse named Dawn Clarke. Nikolay and Dawn got married, and had four children: Jan, Kim, Kai and Jay.
Jan rowed for UCLA, and then for Team USA at the Montreal Olympics. She is still an active athlete who competes in Masters competitions in cycling. She also currently serves as the senior vice president for sports & programs for Special Olympics Southern California.
But the journey of her family that brought Jan to achieve Olympian heights was a century-long road through the Siberian steppes and the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima.
Remembering my grandparents and my parents, it occurs to me now that one of the common threads that runs through our lives is simple perseverance – necessary for survival and for facing adversity and challenges. My grandparents’ story and how my dad ended up in the US and met my mother has always filled me with awe, wonder and inspiration. While I was not fighting for my life in sport, I am positive that the drive my grandparents had is alive in me today. Perseverance and the drive to succeed most certainly are defining factors in my journey as an athlete and in my individual character.
When Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in December, 1979, Juan Antonio Samaranch was Spain’s ambassador to the Soviet Union. After two years of cultivating a trusting relationship with Soviet leadership, Samaranch, an International Olympic Committee (IOC) member with a strong desire to become president of the IOC in 1980, was angered when the Spanish government expressed their support of the American call for an Olympic boycott.
As Andrew Jennings wrote in his book, “The New Lord of the Rings,” Samaranch was forbidden to attend the Moscow Olympics by his government, which could put his election to the IOC presidency in jeopardy. Certainly, he’d lose the Soviet vote. Samaranch hurriedly returned to Madrid and persuaded/strong-armed the Spanish National Olympic Committee to ignore the government and accept the IOC’s invitation to participate.
On Wednesday, July 16, 1980, three days before the start of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Juan Antonio Samaranch was elected president of the International Olympic Committee, replacing Lord Killanin, who retired at the end of the 1980 Olympics.
Over 60 nations boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in support of the American government’s protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and some suspected that stronger leadership by Lord Killanin might have influenced fewer nations to boycott. As an AP article noted on June 10, 1980, Lord Killanin did not compare favorably in style to his predecessor, American Avery Brundage, whom Killanin had replaced after the 1972 Munich Olympics.
The reporter noted that when the West German National Olympic Committee voted in Duesseldorf on May 15, 1980, or when the United States Olympic Committee voted in Colorado Springs on April 12, 1980 to support the boycott, Brundage would not have stood for that, and instead would have met members of those Olympic committees and challenged them to stand up to their governments. Citing a long-timer reporter of the Olympic Movement, John Rodda of the London Guardian, the article explained what Brundage might have done.
If Brundage had still been president, he would have been in Duesseldorf for this meeting. If Brundage had still been around, and living up to his reputation, he probably would have been defying governments right and left at this movement. He was always the purist, depending the ideals of the Olympic Games as a supranational movement outside of governments and politics, uncompromising in his idealism and abrasive in his public comments. He never once faltered in this defense of the Olympic Charge in his 20 years as IOC president. Brundage, if true to form, might have gone to Colorado Springs to harangue the US Olympic Committee and call its leaders to ignore the White House and send athletes to Moscow. He might have gone to Dusseldorf. He might have been jet-hopping to Tokyo and Sydney, whipping into line NOCs of Japan and Australia.
David Kanin, who was a CIA Analyst in the American government during this time, agreed that different leadership was needed in these times, and that the IOC believed a more politically savvy person was needed at the top of the IOC. Kanin explained in a podcast called “Sport in the Cold War: Carter’s Olympic Boycott,” that one of the myths the 1980 Olympics exposed was that politics and the Olympics were separate. In fact, politics and the Olympics were coming together in a way that was financially lucrative for all involved.
(The 1980 Olympics) ended that fiction. And the best evidence of that was the movement away from Lord Killanin, who was from the old school, and I think a bit over his head, to Juan Antonio Samaranch of Spain, who was a seasoned diplomat. He wanted to get the Olympics for Barcelona and did. He understood geo-politics. He knew that the Games and politics were mixed. He knew and everybody else in the Olympic movement knew they could make a lot of money and get a lot of attention and a lot of influence by accepting that, and basically embracing the political side, even while they reject that publicly.
And while Samaranch could not strongarm the Soviet Union and her allies to participate in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he was able to bring the world together again at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. At the next Summer Games, Samaranch presided over an Olympics in his home country, opening the doors wide to professionals in basketball with the introduction of the American Dream Team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
The Olympics were again a party everyone wanted to join.
In 1989, the Japanese minister of transport, Shintaro Ishihara wrote an essay that Japanese needed to be more assertive, speak up and say “no.”
In the case of the cold war rhetoric between the US and the USSR, Ishihara wrote that USSR missiles could hit their targets within 60 meters, while Americans bragged US missiles were accurate to 15 meters. Ishihara emphasized that Americans could make that claim thanks to Japanese technology.
“if Japanese semiconductors are not used, this accuracy cannot be assured,” wrote Ishihara in the 1989 book, The Japan that Can Say No. “It has come to the point that no matter how much they continue military expansion, if Japan stopped selling them the chips, there would be nothing more they could do.”
In the late 1980s, the Japanese economy was challenging the American economy, books on Japanese productivity and quality was must reading in MBA programs, and Japanese people were omnipresent globally, quietly confident about Japanese ways.
If the Moscow Olympics had taken place in 1988 instead of 1980, perhaps Japan would have had the confidence to say “no” to an American boycott of the Olympics. However, in 1980, that was not the case. Despite the fact that many of America’s biggest allies in Europe decided to go to participate in the Moscow Summer Games, Japan waited until the last possible moment before finally saying “yes” to America and the boycott.
On Saturday, May 24, 1980, the day before the deadline when national Olympic committees had to accept or decline their invitation to the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, members of the Japan Olympic Committee(JOC) met to vote. The president of the JOC, Katsuji Shibata, clearly wanted Japanese athletes to compete in Moscow. But the odds were stacked against him.
Since January, 1980, officials from the Japanese government expressed a strong view that Japan must boycott the Games, although they were diplomatic enough to say that the final decision rests with the JOC, as per IOC rules.
In an opinion poll taken in late February, 40% of the public were against Japan sending a team to Moscow.
A week later, an informal poll of JOC members revealed that the committee was far from making a decision as 12 members were in favor and 13 were against, although 14 refused to provide a response.
Shibata hoped that an outside force would convince the Japanese government to change its position and pleaded with the president of the International Olympic Committee, Lord Killanin, to negotiate with American President Jimmy Carter and Soviet secretary general Leonid Brezhnev to find “an effective solution to the present crisis of the Olympic movement.”
Even a week after the United States Olympic Committee voted on April 12 to support the Carter administration and boycott the Moscow Games, Shibata was still telling the press that Japan should go to the Moscow Games “in principle.”
In May, Japan Prime MinisterMasayoshi Ohira reiterated the government’s position to boycott the Olympics, while Finance Minister Noboru Takeshita said that financial assistance will no longer be available to sports organizations wishing to send athletes.
Grasping at straws, Shibata sent JOC officials to Asia and Europe to gather information, and perhaps uncover support for Japan to send a team.
But finally, the day of the May 24 vote came. And despite the tearful appeals of Japanese athletes, the JOC voted 29 to 13 in favor of the boycott. “With a heavy heart, I report to you that the JOC has voted to boycott the Games,” said Shibata in a Japan Times report.
One of the most promising medalists for Japan, distance runner Toshihiko Seko was present. Said Seko, who made it to the meeting after a 25-km practice run, “I am despondent but after all I suppose we have to follow what the government says because there would be no sports without a government.”
Alas, 1980 was not yet a time when Japan could say no.
He had pulled off a rare double – winning the 800 meter and 1,500 meter track finals at the 1979 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships – on the same day, with only 35 minutes in between finals. Don Paige, a student at Villanova University, was priming himself for a spot on Team USA for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
But when President Jimmy Carter announced at the White House in March 21, 1980, in front of 100 American Olympic hopefuls, including Paige, the 23 year old was in shock.
Plan A: This plan assumed that the boycott wouldn’t happen. After all, the USOC had not yet declined the invitation to the Games. Paige would then win the indoor nationals in the 1000 meter, win the 800 in the outdoor season, earn a sixth NCAA title, place in the top three in the Olympic trials, and then march in the Opening Ceremonies in Moscow.
Plan B: This plan was taking control of what Paige could control – competitions he could enter. Assuming Team USA did not go to Moscow, Elliott said that Paige would win every 800 meter competition he entered that year, win the US Olympic trials, and run the fastest 800 in the world. Paige would also compete in Europe after the Olympics, gunning for Sebastian Coe, the world record holder in the 800 at the time.
At the 1980 Moscow Olympics, the 800-meter and 1,500 meter finals are now the stuff of Olympic legend. The British compatriots Coe and Steve Ovett were fierce rivals, with Coe setting world records in the 800 and Ovett in the 1500.
Coe was favored to win the 800 meters, but on July 26, 1980, he found himself boxed in by a couple of East Germans, had to fight his way through them, run wide, and kick his way to a silver medal, losing to Ovett. Coe said in this Guardian article that it “was just a f@%k-up from beginning to end”, and calls it “the very worst 800 meters of my 20-year career.”
Ovett was favored to win the 1500 meters, especially after his unexpected triumph in the 800. But on August 1, 1980, East Germany again impacted the outcome. Jurgen Staub set a fast pace. It was Coe, not Ovett that kept pace, in fact passing Straub, and wondering where Ovett was. Coe cracked the tape and won the 1500 meter, covering his face with his hands. His knees buckling, Coe fell to the track, his head touching the track surface for a moment before he raised himself for a victory lap.
Paige followed his coach’s plan. He won the 800-meter finals at the US Olympic trials on June 23, running a world best at the time of 1:44.53. And after the completion of the 1980 Olympics, he went to Europe. Fortunately, his friend had entered him that Spring in a track meet in Via Reggio in Italy, where Coe was scheduled to race on August 14, only 11 days after the end of the Moscow Games.
According to the book, Boycott, Paige was surprised to hear from officials that he had not been entered into the 800 meter competition. He pleaded with race officials. He pleaded directly with Peter Coe, the father of Sebastian Coe, but to no avail. Paige essentially demanded to be in the race, giving an ultimatum:
Here’s what’s going to happen. I’m going to warm up for the 800, take my sweats off, and go to the line,” recalls Paige. “You’re going to have to remove me from that line. When you do, I’m going to hold a press conference explaining to them how my good friend Marty Liquori entered me in this race months ago and you two wanted me out because you thought I might beat Sebastian Coe.”
According to Paige in this CNN article, he went to the starting line and no one asked him to leave. So he finally got his wish – a head to head with the Olympic champion. And with 300 meters to go, Paige was in the lead. “We come off the turn, 100m to go, stride for stride,” said Paige. “Fifty meters, 20 meters. Before the line I’m thinking, ‘God darn it, we are going to tie!’ ”
It wasn’t a tie. Paige beat Coe by two one-hundredths of a second.
The Debate and The Irony
Within teams that boycotted the Olympics, there is always speculation. Would Yasuhiro Yamashita of Japan have won gold in judo? Would Edwin Moses have continued his Olympic dominance in the 400 meter hurdles? Would Don Paige actually have defeated both Ovett and Coe at the 1980 Moscow Olympics?
Yes Paige defeated Coe in Italy. But one can argue that Coe had already peaked, while Paige trained to peak in Italy, as explained in this Let’s Run forum discussion:
Coe was exhausted after running several races post Olympics. Paige was geared up to meet Coe and edged him out by o.03. A one off race. Coe’s PB was 1.42, Paige’s best was 144.5. Paige may well have taken bronze in Moscow. Ovett beat Paige in 83 easily – in the year that Paige had set his 800M PB. Ovett was well past his peak in that race.
Coe also proved himself again at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, winning gold in the 1500 meters and silver in the 800 meters again, with Paige no where to be seen.
At the end of the day, Paige is realistic about his place in history. “I was No. 1 in the world, but Sebastian Coe was a better half-miler than me,” Paige said in 2010 in this Philadelphia Inquirer article. “I just beat him that day. There’s only one Olympics. That was just a great competition that I was fortunate to win.”
But he does hold out hope that the boycott had meaning. Paige was, perhaps ironically, an American athlete who supported President Carter’s decision to pull Team USA from the Moscow Games. In 2010, he wrote an article that explained why he supported the boycott, and explained this view to Track and Field News.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing in this world, and [Carter] had to make a tough decision which I’m sure crushed him when he had to make a stand worldwide . . . There will always be politics in sports, and I believe Jimmy Carter made the best decision he could at the time . . . I still say maybe because Don Paige did not go to the Olympics, maybe I spared one life in Afghanistan. And if I did, I sleep really well at night because of that. It makes me feel good and proud.
Sebastian Coe was in Singapore in July, 2005 to convince the IOC that London was the best choice for the 2012 Summer Olympics. He believed he could speak with conviction about Great Britain’s commitment to the Olympic movement – after all, Team GB has never missed a date, as he related to The Guardian.
I don’t think I would have been able to stand up in Singapore in front of the International Olympic Committee and say what I said with credibility if I had boycotted in 1980. I was able to say that Britain had sent a team to every winter and summer games. Had I not gone in 1980 it would certainly have been seized upon and exploited by rival cities.”
Coe helped convince the IOC to make London the host of the 2012 Olympics, taking heart in the fact that Great Britain did not boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
President Carter felt that the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR threatened the national security of European nations and in particular the NATO allies. But getting the commitment of other countries, particularly American allies, was a challenge.
“The foreign reaction (to the proposed boycott) was something else,” said CIA analyst, David Kanin in a podcast about Carter and the boycott. “There was always a quizzical response – why? There was skepticism. There was support from some allied governments. There was support from allied Olympic committees, but not many. And it was clear that the athletes were dead set against it. It was a complicated situation.”
The complexity that the Carter administration was trying to grasp was the multi-faceted leadership of the Olympic movement, as Kanin went on to explain. He noted that the Carter administration initially didn’t understand much about Olympic movement, and “how the tripartite system with all the federations worked.” What was not clear at first to many was that governments don’t officially determine whether a national team goes to a given Olympics or not – in fact, it’s the national Olympic committees. That is why American vice president Walter Mondale went directly to the US Olympic Committee on the day of their vote, as explained in post 2 of this series.
European Resistance to the Boycott
In the case of Great Britain, prime minister Margaret Thatcher was in agreement with American president Jimmy Carter – that a boycott would sent a strong message to the Kremlin. But in Europe, governments were supportive of whatever decision their Olympic committee chose.
Early on, the French Sports Minister Jean Pierre Sottson said that “The Olympic Games ae not organized by the governments but by the International Olympic Committee which chooses a city, and not a country,” he said in a January 19, 1980 UPI article.
In early February, 10 national Olympic committees in Europe gathered in Frankfurt, West Germany and released a joint communique stating that “National Olympic Committees had sole responsibility to decide on the participation of their athletes at the Summer Games.” (AP, February 3, 1980)
Still, Thatcher believed that a boycott was the right thing to do, as did the Parliament. On March 17, 1980, after 7 hours of debate, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for Great Britain to boycott the Moscow Games.
Allan Wells of Scotland was a sprinter expected to compete in the 1980 Olympics, and thought that the British government went overboard in trying to influence the athletes that Moscow as a bad idea, as he related in this Guardian article.
We received maybe half-a-dozen letters from 10 Downing Street trying to put us off. I opened one. There was a picture with a letter saying this is what the Russians are doing. It showed a dead Afghan girl with a doll. I can still see the picture even now as if it were yesterday. It made me feel very angry that we were being pressured to this extent. I think deep down the government wanted us to go but also wished to please the Americans. My first thought was, “What’s going to happen if I don’t go? A Russian soldier isn’t going to say, ‘Oh, Allan Wells isn’t coming. I’m not going to shoot somebody.”
In the end, the British Olympic Association voted to go, and the British government did not put up barriers to their athletes’ participation. Although West Germany’s Olympic committee voted to boycott, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland joined Great Britain and sent teams to the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Allen Wells would go on to win gold in the 100 meters, as well as silver in the 200 meters. But it was the duels between famed British middle distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett that captured the imagination of the British public, and could be seen as defeat for Thatcher, according to Paul Corthorn, senior lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast, in this podcast.
A large part of the public debate had taken place earlier on in the 1980, January through March. The Games were held in the summer. A certain amount of time had passed. Other things had happened, have risen to prominence. I think in terms of the way in which the British successes were portrayed in the media, there is simply a case of interest in those competitions themselves, and a desire to celebrate them instead of hark back to an earlier debate.
Andras Toro was adamant. And he brought a badge to show – “We Will GO!”
Toro, a 4-time Olympian and member of the USOC’s Athletes Sub-Committee, was at the Antlers Hotel on April 12, 1980, the date that the United States Olympic Committee’s House of Delegates would vote on whether American athletes would accept the invitation to the 1980 Moscow Olympics or now.
The debate in the media over the previous three months had been intense, with much of the public in alignment with President Jimmy Carter and his intent to have America boycott the Olympics. To ensure that the USOC delegates heard Carter’s message, the White House insisted that Vice President Walter Mondale be allowed to address the USOC, to ensure the Carter administration had the final word before the vote.
Mondale explained what questions he believed were before the delegates and which ones were not.
The Vice President said that it was not a question of “denying our Olympic team the honor they deserve; for the American people, as you know, deeply respect the sacrifice we are asking our athletes to make.” He said that it was not “a question of whether participation in the Moscow Olympics confers legitimacy on Soviet aggression. When the Communist Party prints a million handbooks to tell its top activists that the Summer Games mean world respect for Soviet foreign policy, surely that issue is behind us.”
And he said it was not “a question of drawing a line between sports and politics,” and went on to explain the trade offs of the Soviet investment in their PR machine over domestic needs and the need to quiet the voices of dissidents.
Mondale then turned to history – to the United States decision to attend the 1936 Berlin Olympics, which he said was a mistake. He quoted an American member of the IOC, Ernest Jahncke, at the time who said, “If our committee permits the games to be held in Germany, there will be nothing left to distinguish [the Olympic idea] from the Nazi ideal. It will take years to reestablish the prestige of the games and the confidence of the peoples of the world.”
Mondale went on to explain that there was no boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, stating that the “reasons for the rejection are bone chilling.”
Do not drag sports into the arena of politics, they were told. It will destroy the Olympic movement, they were told. It will only penalize our American athletes, they were told. Solutions to political problems are not the responsibility of sporting bodies, they were told. Let us take our Jews and blacks to Berlin and beat the Nazis, they were told. If America refuses to go, we will be the only ones left out in the cold, they were told.
In the end, the USOC voted on a ratio of 2 to 1 to support the boycott. Jan Palchikoff, a rower selected to participate on Team USA in Moscow, was at the Olympic Team selection camp when she heard the news. She was devastated, but she was not surprised.
The USOC House of Delegates were made up a very broad group of sports stakeholders that includes national governing boards of sports federations, multi-sport organizations, state Olympic organizations that raise funds, athletes, IOC members as well as members of the public. Athletes made up a number of the 3,300 plus members, but the House of Delegates were dominated by non-athletes.
Palchikoff said that the USOC leadership itself was essentially a volunteer organization, that were not necessarily poised to take on the US Government and the President of the United States. “The USOC was not particularly good at telling the athletes’ story. They weren’t equipped to play ball with the government.”
American sprinter Ollan Cassell was a gold medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and in 1980, was the executive director of The Athletic Congress (TAC), which was America’s track and field federation. He wrote in his book, Inside the Five Ring Circus, that he disagreed with Mondale about the impact that America’s participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics had.
The President and Vice President both compared the 1980 situation with 1936 Berlin. “We saw what happened in 1936 when the United States sent athletes to Berlin,” Mondale said. “Hitler said it to his advantage. We can’t let that happen.” Did our top political leaders get all their Berlin Olympic history from Leni Riefenstahl?
I can’t fathom Olympic history without Jesse Owens…or his fellow African American Olympic medalists: Cornelius Johnson, John Woodruff, Archie Williams, Ralph Metcalfe, Mack Robinson, Dave Albritton, James “Jimmy” LuValle and Fritz Pollard. It was a seminal event for African-American athletes, and an “in your face” to Hitler’s crazy and convoluted concept of “Aryan supremacy.”
In the end, the Americans didn’t go. Andras Toro never got to see how effective an Olympic coach he could be. Jan Palchikoff never saw the payoff to years of hard training, essentially self financed. American track legends Edwin Moses and Renaldo Nehemiah never got their “in your face” moment.
Mondale said, “we recognize the enormous price we are asking our athletes to pay, and, above all, to recognize the true heroism of our athletes who do not go to Moscow.”
So many of Americans selected for the 1980 Moscow Olympics, forced to stay home, likely did not see this boycott as the better part of valor.
It was May 21, 1980, and I was at Astor Plaza Theater in New York at the premier of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. I was an ordinary carefree high school student with extraordinary interest in comic books and science fiction. I was 17 years old.
At the same time, Luci Collins, was in California, an extraordinary kid with an extraordinary talent for gymnastics, who made Team USA and was scheduled to be in Moscow for the 1980 Summer Olympics two months later, until President Jimmy Carter (in the role of Darth Vader), announced at the White House to Americans selected for the 1980 Olympic Team that “Our team will not go.” She was 16 years old.
Collins, who wanted to grow up to be just like Soviet superstar Olga Korbut, was on the precipice of making history – becoming the first ever Black gymnast to make an Olympic team. But after the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Afghanistan in late December, 1979, President Carter gave the USSR an ultimatum: get out of Afghanistan by February 20, or else. The USSR did not reverse course, and President Carter stuck to his guns and forced the United States Olympic Committee to comply with a boycott as retribution.
So instead of becoming the trailblazing Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson of gymnastics, Collins had to wait another 4 years for her chance in her home state of California. Unfortunately, Collins didn’t make the team for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
“I couldn’t even watch the 1984 Olympic Games on TV because I was so disappointed to not be there,” she said in the book, Boycott: Stolen Dreams of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. “It was heartbreaking for me. There were people on that team that I had placed ahead of just four years prior….”
1980 – A Miserable Year
For the peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, President Carter was desperate to make the USSR feel painful consequences for their invasion of a neighboring country. He was also desperate to change the mood of the country.
In January, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a group of nuclear physicists who created the “Doomsday Clock,” moved the time to from 9 to 7 Minutes to Midnight, a metaphor for how close the world was to nuclear Armageddon.
Seven months earlier, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to curtail the production and number of strategic nuclear weapons in a treaty called SALT II, but the US Senate never ratified it. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December of that year, US President Jimmy Carter withdrew from the treaty.
In 1980, the Cold War was at near freezing temperatures, and the American mood was dark. In addition to the increasing belligerency between the US and USSR, Carter was dealing with double-digit inflation, oil shortages and an American hostage crisis in Iran that began in November, 1979.
In contrast to the Olympian’s perception, the American public’s view was that USSR general secretary Leonid Brezhnev represented the Empire. In late February, 1980, 73% of people who knew about the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan supported a boycott of the Olympics, a monthly jump of 24 points.
As four-time Olympian and coach of the 1980 US Canoeing Team, Andras Toro, wrote, “the national polls were running very high in favor of the boycott, and the athletes were portrayed as selfish, unpatriotic, un-American spoiled brats.” He told me that there was a public perception that Olympians were professional athletes and were making a lot of money, but that was an unfair comparison.
“Basketball, yes. Track, maybe swimming a bit. But there were 27 or so sports that were part of the Olympic program. The public was not tuned into the sacrifice being made by athletes in sports like kayak, team handball and archery.”
Jan Palchikoff, a member of the 1976 US Olympic Team was also gearing up for the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a rower in the women’s quadruple sculls. And she was furious that she and her teammates were denied an opportunity to compete in the Summer Games.
“Had we been receiving money from the US government, you could make the case,” she told me. “But we rowers were all on our own. I had a series of part time jobs, waitressing in two restaurants. I worked in a cookie bakery and sold imported baskets at a swap meet. I was training 30 to 40 hours a week and not getting paid. In fact, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to be paid. So I really felt the rug was pulled out from under us.”
At the heart of the argument between athletes and the US government was whether a boycott would achieve any significant results. There was little doubt that the Olympics were viewed by the Soviets as a powerful public relations tool for the Soviet way of life. Olga Chepurnaya, wrote in her 2017 article, “The Moscow Olympics, 1980: Competing in the context of the Cold War and state dirigisme,” that promoting communist ideology was one of the biggest reasons they bid for the Games in 1971.
The Olympic Games were planned as an event that would establish a basis upon which to propagandize the Soviet way of life and belief system both in countries of the socialistic bloc and in capitalist countries. In addition, a purportedly non-political headline event in the country fully fitted in with the general pattern of Soviet achievements, including space exploration and providing assistance to developing countries. By hosting a mega-event such as the Olympic Games, the USSR could considerably improve its international image on the one hand, and enhance patriotic feelings inside the country on the other.
An analyst with the CIA at the time, David Kanin, concurred with that perception, and felt that a boycott represented an action that could be seen and felt, as he explained in a podcast about Carter and the boycott.
The boycott was part of the effort, at least to show we were doing something. After Iran, where it seemed nothing was happening, I don’t think anybody, especially in an election year, could afford to be perceived as doing nothing. The Olympics were coming. It was a highly publicized event the Soviets cared about. It gave us a target. It gave us an opportunity. But also in the view I think of some it was an appropriate public expression of government and public opposition to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. We were then looking for support from allies, neutrals and others around the world.
Palchikoff found no solace in the explanations. She was tired of being told that the boycott was a necessary move to ensure national security. Today, she strongly feels that more could have been done for international relations if they had competed in the Olympics, and that the boycott made no difference in America’s national security. In fact, the US Government’s only impact was to harm its own citizens. “No lives were saved. We were used as a political tool. If that’s the best the US has to negotiate with the Soviets, then we’re in trouble.”
Like Toro and Palchikoff, Collins of course went on to have fulfilling careers and lives. But she felt that Carter missed the point about the Olympics. “In my opinion,” Collins said, “the Olympics has always been known to be where all the countries of the world come to unite no matter what differences we have. President Carter used the Olympics to prove his point, and that was wrong.”