The run-up to London 2012 has been marked by high-level political endorsement and massive public investment. Britain has a tradition of strong support for the Olympic movement, but one moment stands out as a major exception. Just over 30 years ago – for the only time since the revival of the modern Games in 1896 – the government of the day did its best to prevent British athletes from taking part in the Olympics. After a bruising encounter, occupying a prominent place in public debate for several months, a British team went to the 1980 Moscow Games having inflicted a rare bloody nose on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
The origins of this unique episode lay in the politics of the Cold War. In late 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, pouring thousands of troops across the border in a matter of days. In the United States, President Jimmy Carter consulted with other western leaders, including Mrs Thatcher – head of the Conservative administration elected six months earlier – about how to respond.
Military intervention was quickly ruled out, but Carter was determined that firm retaliatory measures should be taken. Key to his strategy was a desire to disrupt the Olympics, due to take place in the Soviet capital in July 1980.
While many nations fell in behind an American-led boycott of the Games, in Britain Thatcher struggled to persuade most Olympic athletes to follow Carter’s lead.
In the early weeks of the crisis, attention centred on efforts to relocate the Games away from Moscow. In January 1980 the prime minister wrote to the British Olympic Association (BOA), which had responsibility for organising and funding the British team, asking it to support the idea that the Olympics be moved from the Russian capital to other venues.
The battle lines in the dispute soon became clear. In the eyes of the prime minister, a conviction-politician dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’ by the Soviets to denote her strident anti-communism, the sensibilities of sport were subordinate to the needs of diplomacy; the Anglo-American ‘special relationship’ had to be upheld in the face of Soviet expansionism. Thatcher hoped to win the day by relying on majority support in the House of Commons, and by exploiting the outrage at the Soviet invasion being expressed in much of the British newspaper press.
But from the outset Thatcher underestimated the range, scale and resourcefulness of her opponents. The Labour opposition in parliament (and even a minority of Conservatives) had sympathy with the case made by the sporting authorities, led by the BOA, and by individual sportsmen and women, determined to fulfil their long-held Olympic ambitions.
Sir Denis Follows, chairman of the BOA, was an experienced sports administrator, a former secretary of the Football Association, and he staunchly upheld the principle – adhered to by most governments previously – that independent sports authorities should be free to reach their own decisions without ministerial interference.
Follows told Thatcher that the idea of setting up an alternative Olympic programme at short notice was unlikely to succeed, and added that sport resented being singled out in the wake of the Soviet attack, whereas other possibilities such as military retaliation were not seriously considered.
In addition, from the outset the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the world-controlling authority for the Games, refused to bow to political pressure. In February 1980, as the Winter Olympics got under way at Lake Placid in the United States (with Soviet competitors in attendance), the IOC voted unanimously for the summer Games to go ahead as planned.
This signalled the start of a new phase in the drama, as the Carter administration concentrated more fully on persuading other nations to stay away from Moscow.
In the spring of 1980 Thatcher’s government stepped up the pressure on the BOA to fall in behind the Americans. Ministers made it difficult for the association to raise the necessary funds to assist Olympic athletes with travel costs and expenses, and threatened to ban special leave for civil servants and members of the armed forces hoping to represent Britain in Moscow. They also set aside time for a full-scale parliamentary debate with the intention of forcing a vote. Thatcher calculated that a decisive verdict in the House of Commons would leave the BOA with no choice but to change course.
The outcome of the six-hour debate held on 17 March – at the time, the longest on the Olympics in parliamentary history – appeared to be incontrovertible: the government-sponsored motion that Britain “should not take part in the Olympic Games in Moscow” was backed by 345 votes to 147. But mitigating circumstances meant that the result was not widely interpreted as a knock-out blow for the BOA. An estimated 30 Conservative MPs abstained, showing that the government did not speak with one voice, and the occasion of the debate prompted a series of opinion polls in which about two-thirds of the public sided with the athletes.
A week later Sir Denis Follows, who endured considerable vilification at the hands of some newspapers, defiantly announced that 15 of the separate national sports governing bodies (including the largest like athletics and swimming) had reiterated their determination to attend the Games. A handful of others were still considering their position.
Beyond the pale
By April 1980 it was certain that more than a skeleton British team would go to Moscow. Yet the prime minister was not ready to admit defeat. The BOA was beyond the pale, but ministers continued to make direct appeals to individual governing bodies and prominent athletes. This had some effect, with four of the most establishment-minded of the sporting federations – those representing hockey, shooting, yachting and equestrianism – declaring they would back the government’s line.
But for every competitor complying with Thatcher’s wishes, there were many more who resented her tactics.
In later years the sprinter Allan Wells spoke of attempts at “blackmail”. Among the letters he received urging him to boycott the Games, one carried a picture of a dead Afghan child. “It made me feel very angry”, Wells recalled, “that we were being pressurised to this extent.”
Despite the government’s victory in the March parliamentary vote, the mood in favour of going to Moscow grew stronger as the July opening ceremony loomed. For many the clinching factor was the release of trade figures showing that in the first quarter of 1980 British exports to the Soviet Union rose by 63 per cent.
While ministers claimed this reflected agreements in place before the Soviet attack on Afghanistan, the idea that athletes were being uniquely discriminated against, while trade links were largely unaffected, gained in credibility.
The number of nations eventually boycotting the 1980 Games totalled over 60. Although some events were badly affected by absentees, Prime Minister Thatcher could take little comfort from the fact that the British team was the largest from western Europe. The embarrassment of ministers was compounded by gold medal triumphs for Duncan Goodhew, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Daley Thompson and Allan Wells. Although these victories were celebrated under the Olympic flag – a move accepted by the BOA to symbolise disapproval of Soviet aggression – the general public regarded them as British triumphs.
The controversy had lasting consequences for the Olympics and for global diplomacy. The Moscow boycott helped to provoke a renewal of Cold War hostilities after a phase of more cordial east-west relations, and the Soviets retaliated by engineering the absence of communist states from the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
The dispute also affected Britain’s place in the Olympic movement for a generation to come. Bids to stage the Games submitted in the 1980s and 1990s by Birmingham and Manchester (twice), though well formulated, attracted little international support.
It took more than 20 years before Britain’s stock within the IOC rose again for London to become a serious – and ultimately successful – contender for the Olympics of 2012.
Kevin Jefferys is professor of contemporary history at Plymouth University. His latest book is Sport and Politics in Modern Britain: The Road to 2012 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012)