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Risks of Boycotting the Olympics


In April 1978 Afghanistan’s centrist government was overthrown by left-wing military officers led by Nur Mohammad Taraki. Power has been thereafter shared between two political groups, the People’s (Khalq) Party and the Banner (Parcham) Party, emerged from the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which have developed close clues with Russia. The uprisings against the government by Muslim guerrillas called Mujiaheddin along with internal coups within the government between the People’s and Banner factions, prompted the Soviets to invade the country on twenty-fourth of December 1979. Russia aim was to overthrow Afizullah Amin government and to facilitate the establishment of a puppet government by Karmal in order to maintain its strategic indirect position in Afghanistan. As regards the international community reaction, every country has had different reactions depending on geopolitical, military, economics and religious reasons. However only the Warsaw pact countries or the one which have well-established relations with Soviet Union or which are dependent on it, have approved its action. All NATO members instead are unified in condemning Russian attack and have welcomed USA strong countermeasures, but the governments haven’t found yet a general agreement on how to react due to their different national situations and interests. President Jimmy Carter thinks that Russian invasion has hardly damaged the detente process and he has decided to adopt strong measures as the postponement of the SALT-II nuclear weapons treaty and the recall of American ambassador. Moreover Carter has asked United States Olympic Committee to boycott the Olympics Games in Moscow if Soviet Union doesn’t withdraw its troops because. The Games can’t be set in “the capital city of a nation whose invading military forces are occupying Afghanistan”. Carter has appealed to Thatcher government too, asking her to urge British Olympic Committee (BOA) to take a similar action. I am writing to to show to the ministers the different ways in which England could react to the Soviet invasion, dwelling mostly on whether or not it is convenient to boycott, and I will conclude my policy brief explaining which options I consider the best and why and their potential negative consequences or the disadvantages related to them.


Before discussing any measure, I would like to clarify a key point. The public debate in the last months has been focused on whether or not a sportive event should be used as a means of political leverage. Some argue, among whom sport minister Mr. Monro, that sport and politics should remain two separated spheres and no interferences by the governments in the Olympics games should be permitted. They consider then the boycott an unacceptable measure. Others, like me, believe that, particularly in international affairs, it is almost impossible to separate the two spheres. Moreover, Soviet Union is a totalitarian state in which everything is politicised, so the Olympics will be surely part of Soviet Union foreign policy. Therefore the government is perfectly entitled to be engaged in the affairs of bodies such as the British Olympic Association (BOA). Labour opposition and the public opinion, though, could accuse the government of using “Soviet methods” that is to not to respect the traditional independence of the International Olympic Committee (IOC),which is composed by individual members and it is not representative of nation states.

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In the free world, governments cannot organise sporting events. They can encourage and facilitate the holding of games, but the organisation is a matter of The IOC and the international federations of the sport concerned .They have the power largely to decide whether and under what conditions international sporting events take place. The first option I would submit to your attention is an appeal to International Olympic Committee to cancel the games, postpone them or, at least,to relocate them somewhere else. England could make facilities available to host some of the events or they could take place in multiple sites. I would argue that a coordinated appeal to the IOC through United Nations offices might be more impressive than a unilateral one. Another path to follow could be the organization of alternative games,in which athlethes would compete similarly to the Olympics but without moral regrets. However, the IOC could argue in response that there are practical difficulties: the relocation of the Games would reuquire the approval of all national sporting federations . Moreover Moscow could have achieved all technical requirements. I don’t see how alternative Games could be a good idea too.The cost would be around 300£ milions and athletes are are not really interested in a competition which is not global.

I would suggest that, in the countries where the Government can’t determine what sportsmen must do, as England, the global boycott required by Carter is difficult to be implemented. A global boycott would require concerted actions between Western countries but, although several of these governments are in favour of a boycott, they haven’t got the essential national sporting federation approval.

Therefore if her Majesty’s government would decide to encourage a national Olympic boycott, it should consult the National Olympic Committee. First alternative could be a meeting between the Sport Minister or the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the chairmen of the BOA, Mr Follows or its honorary treasurer,Mr Innes. It necessary to bear in mind that some events would make impossible for the BOA to not take account of the boycott proposal: I am referrring to leading sporting nations (as Germany) decision to quit the Games or to a potential majority of MP in House of Commons whom support the boycott. The Prime Minister herself could have a correspondence with Sir Denis Follows. Government has got some levers from a financial point of view,but not too many because Btitish Olympics Association relies on voluntary financial assistance:it might resign its role as a patron of the association appeal or make clear that no special paid leave would be granted to civil servants or Armed Forces personnel participating in the Games or that public money should not be made available to send an attaché to Moscow. However applying these financial measures could be counter-productive because it would seem a quasi compulsion like if the government were bullying the BOA.

The entire sport federations or single sportsmen are not completely bound by BOA decision and they could decide on their own to not partecipate in the Games. Therefore,from my point of view, the best choice would be to hold a meeting with representatives of the main sporting organisations or with the singular athletes to persuade them not to go to Moscow. As regards the athlethes, from my view, they have the same responsibilities as other citizens towards peace and they should take into account government foreign policies.Therefore I’m not against a potential government attempt to influence them. The debate is more on the most appropriate mood of exercising pressure: on one hand government could force them through measures as the withdrawal of passports; on the other,in the name of individual freedom, it could let them free to choose if it is morally correct to join the Olympics after russian brutal invasion in Afghanistan. I would argue that in a free society like ours this should be a personal choice based on morality but government could also sweaten the pill offering money to help set up a preparation fund for the future. Unlicklily there is no certainty that these measures will convince athletes to quit the Games or they won’t consider this like a bribe. It could be possible also that they won’t boycott because the (probable) absence of USA and Germany guarantees more chances of winning the category.

Another answer to the events in Afghanistan ,which not affect Olympic Games, is the imposition of financial countermeasures. The government might consider a unilateral measure as cutting all ordinary trades or it might prefer to target with these measures only special forms of trade,for instance subsidised trades of EC agricultural products (and also butter) and it could try to convince its partners to join his position. In addition, the United Kingdom could not renew the Anglo-Soviet credit agreement which gave the Russians especially generous terms. Finally UK could consider also to cut off the supply of high technology material.


Among all these alternatives, the most appropriate to choose seems to be the boycott for the following reasons. In my view, the boycott worked well in South Africa. now in fact it is a relatively free country, in most respects, compared with the Soviet Union and the boycott has had a considerable impact in breaking down barrier. Moreover Russia is definitely not an appropriate host for the Olympics. As Dr. Sakarov ,recently exiled, said “Games in Moscow contradicts the Olympic Charter”: it has never happened that the host country had been committing an aggression during the Games; moreover press reports the massacre that the Soviets are carrying out in order to strengthen their position in Afghanistan.Russian, by invading Afganisthan, shown a disrispect for Olympics principle of the free pursuit of human excellence by the individual.

What is more,An Olympics purge is running right now: Soviet Union is persecuting dissidents, dening human rights ensured by law and international agreements as Helsinki final act. If Western nations decided to attend in spite of Afghanistan, they would betray freedoms for which they have so courageously to defend. This repressing behaviour represents a perversion of the Olympic ideal and would itself be a reason for not going to Moscow this summer. The ambassador has reported about several cases of people exiled or in jail for anti-soviet propaganda.

A boycott is the most unmistakable and uncompromising act to show western countries disapproval of the soviet invasion in Afganishtan. In fact it could be possible to demonstrate disapproval of Soviet actions while participating in the sporting events: athletes or member of the delegations wouldn’t take part in the opening cerimony and the presence of Uk delegations would be strictly limited at the official occasions and English flag would not be raised. Joining an event as the Olympics means though to accept the host country rules,tecnically the IOC but in terms of propaganda the Soviet Union, and these kind of acts could be mislead and considered an act of hooliganism.

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As I said before, everything in Russia is politicised. They therefore will use Olympics to make political propaganda in the country and abroad. They will describe Olympics as a a triumph of Soviet organizational ability and of Soviet athletes but, on top of them, Western country partecipation would mean a silent approvation of its foreign policy of invading a small, not alligned country.

Conversely, a boycott could be useful to underline the firmness of western countries in condmening this action in violation of international law.

Moreover there is a high probability that the Games will disappoint soviet people expectations due to the absence of several countries.The impact on soviet population will be huge because in Russia sport generates intense public interest. They, noticing western countries absence, will start to have doubts on the fairness of Soviet armed intervention in Afghanistan and they will call for a satisfactory answer. In fact neither powerful Soviet Union propaganda won’t be able to explain the absence of most countries and of some of the most famous athletes in the world.

Moreover Russia invaded a country has revealed its expansionism aims. This is a seroius challenge to the principles of UN,not only indipendency and peace but also as regards security issues. After an aggression no one is safe anymore. So it is important tha western countries elaborate a strategy to make Russia to think twice before act and the boycott is part of this strategy. In fact Sovie Union tried to conquer country in strategic position. Olympics associations of several countries as United States, Federal Republic of Germany and Japan whose teams won a third of all medals in 1970 are considering to boycott the Olympics. This makes the event,and the medals, vaueless.


However, it is fundamental to consider the potential risks that boycotting the Olympics means. First of all, taking part in a sporting activity that happens to take place in a totalitarian country doesn’t mean neither to support regimes invasion of Afghanistan nor dissidents persecution. Owens in in 1937 joined the Olympics in Berlin but he didn’t support Nazi racist theories. On the contrary, England would demonstrate to have good athletes who can win gold medals. As regards sportsmen and sportswomen, it is impossible to not symphatise for them whom have made sacrifices and trained hardly in order to arrive at peak condition for the Olympics and maybe that won’t never have another chance like this . Back to the boycott, its impact might be less effective than expected : it will surely have a negative financial impact in the period of the Games owing to the shortfall of foreign visitors and limited media coverage, but it will target only common people,not leaders. Furthermore It probably won’t have any pragmatic impact on russian presence in Afganistan with the further negative consequence of a probable future Russian boycott if the next Olympic Games will be set in one of the western block countries. On the countrary if Soviet Union decided to react strongly, this measures,projected to affect the civil sphere,could generate an escalation of violence,condcting everyone to the Third World War. Moreover Its role is to show western countries disapproval in a meaningful way but Soviet authorities might succeed in hiding widespread discontent to the population. The organizers might fly the flags of countries whose National Olympic Committees will be sending teams, whatever the position of the Governments of those countries, and they may fly the flags of all members of the International Olympic Committee, including the Stars and Stripes.

I would argue that,a part from the boycott, England should consider also the imposition of financila measures. To my mind England should definitely interrupt only the sale of high technology goods which could potentially be used by Russia to buy war machines. As regards the idea of Cutting off all the trades, it would be more damaging for the english firms and workers than for Soviet Union itself. An effective and at the same time measured financial response might be instead to avoid a preferable treatment of Russia. Ordinary trades,particularly for non strategic capital goods, should not be suspended but Russia must not have the chance to do tades with England in a privileged position. That is why we should not renew the Anglo-Soviet credit agreement and oppose subsidised exports of agricultural products .We hardly need these measures to show Russia that cannot continue to enjoy the benefits of Western technology, credits and foodstuffs while flouting the other areas of detente. Moreover in this way athlethes,but also public opinion, can’t think that the government is using only athletes as political powns avoiding reactions in other fields as trade and commerce. Athletes need to knwo that they are part of a general policy and not only their personal sacrifice.Nonetheless, the risk associated the government should run is that they could threaten détente process. Therefore the government should be careful in imposing hard measures: it is necessary that England is still able to communicate with Soviet Union in order to continue to promote a distensive climate or, however, to have the most peaceful coexistence as possible. We should consider also that Soviet propaganda machine could provide alternative explanations for the lack of butter provision from CE.



  • Britannica,(2019). Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.[online] Available at: //
  • Hansard Website (1980) Olympic Boycott (March 1980), : Parliament archives
  • History (2019). Carter reacts to Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. [online] Available: //
  • Margaret Thatcher Foundation (2011) Cold War: State Department brief on Olympic boycott, :US State Department.
  • Margaret Thatcher Foundation (2011) Olympic Boycott: Thatcher and Carter, : US State Department.
  • National Foreign Assessment Center (2006) Worldwide reaction to the Soviet invasion to Afghanistan,: CIA.
  • The National Archives (n.d.) PREM 19/376, : Prem records team.

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