The Cold War and the Olympic Movement
Christopher Hill describes the diplomatic and public relations disputes that surrounded the Olympic Games in the Cold War.
International sport needs the interest and support of politicians, but not their interference. Politicians, on the other hand, appreciate that sport has a political dimension, and exploit this when they can. Both sides in the Cold War engaged in the most extraordinary stratagems, mostly unscrupulous, many akin to schoolboys' japes, and all sanctified by state necessity. The Olympics provide splendid examples of the use made of sport by politicians in this period. Nevertheless, in general politicians do not seem to have adopted the Olympic movement's estimate of its own importance. Sport was a weapon of international affairs, but only one among many, and even President Carter, who became more deeply involved than most, saw that a boycott of the Olympics did not entail any material sacrifice on the part of the USA, even though the athletes' careers suffered. On the other side of the Iron Curtain, states with fewer genuine weapons at their disposal used sport with correspondingly greater passion.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a whole always saw its first duties as the maintenance of sport as a universal ideal, and the maintenance of the IOC; itself as the supreme arbiter of world sport. No international federation of a sport included in the Olympic Games could operate without its recognition, though a few very powerful federations, like the IAAF (International Amateur Athletic Federation) have been more rivals than suppliants.
The grandees of the Olympic movement were well attuned to international politics. They were, and remain, an extremely well-informed elite, many with access to the corridors of power. Some National Olympic Committees (NOCs), particularly in the West, saw themselves as independent of government, but in the Soviet bloc and many developing countries this was not the case. Once the USSR joined the Olympic movement in 1952, the Games became politicised and in the United States, particularly, medal tables gained a popularity that was related at least as much to Cold War perceptions as to love of sport for its own sake.
Two long-drawn-out problems exercised the IOC's skill in international politics. These were the rival claims of mainland China and Taiwan, and of West and East. Germany to send national teams to the Olympic Games. Both problems turned on recognition of National Olympic Committees. East Germany was bent on gaining recognition of its NOC as a step towards recognition of the East German state, whereas Taiwan feared that, if its NOC lost recognition, acceptance of the mainland as the 'true' China would be a step closer. In the event, once they had been admitted to the Olympic movement, both mainland China and East Germany stopped at nothing in the pursuit of medals as aids to nationhood, even recruiting doctors and coaches to take reckless risks with athletes' health.
Following the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949, the International Olympic Committee granted West Germany's NOC full recognition in May 1951. There was lively discussion of whether or not the East German NOC should also be recognised, even though East Germany was not an independent state. The question could not be evaded because the East German federations of individual sports were seeking affiliation to their international umbrella bodies, the International Federations (IFs), and these were waiting on guidance from the IOC. If a decision were delayed, the IFs might be pushed into going ahead without it, thereby weakening the IOC's authority. The formal question was whether the IOC could recognise a body which was not based in a state; but the underlying conflict was between the Soviet Union's wish for its satellite to have an independent NOC, and the feeling among some IOC members that to recognise two NOCs for Germany would entrench the division of the country.
In 1955, the year after the Soviet Union released East Germany from its status as the Soviet Zone of Germany and recognised it as a sovereign state, the East German NOC was provisionally recognised, 'on the understanding that, after the reunification of Germany, the IOC will recognise one German Olympic Committee, standing for the whole of Germany'.
The two Germanys entered a joint team for the winter and summer Games of 1956, causing Avery Brundage, president of the IOC, to enthuse, 'We have obtained in the field of sport what politicians have failed to achieve so far'. East Germany continued to ask for separate recognition, though with assurances that if it were not granted it would still compete on the current terms. NATO wished the joint team to continue, but the West Germans were also beginning to want a separate team of their own.
When the question was discussed again, in 1965, it had gained urgency because political reunification of the two Germanys was no longer seriously on the cards, and twenty out of twenty- four IFs were demanding separate teams for the 1968 Games. The powerful International Amateur Athletic Federation had already allowed separate teams to compete at its 1966 European Championships. The IOC agreed by a very large majority that, as East Germany would no longer accept a joint team, 'the West German Olympic Committee will revert to affiliation for Germany and the East German Olympic Committee is fully affiliated for the geographical area of East Germany'. The use of the term 'geographical area' – sometimes the word 'territory' was used – neatly avoided commitment as to the legal status of East Germany.
Thus the IOC recognised political reality. Initially it had been strongly influenced by the prevailing belief that Germany would soon be reunited. The fact that this gradually became unlikely was partly due to East Germany's effective use of sport in helping to establish its separate identity in the eyes of the world. Additionally, the West German government had abandoned the Hallstein Doctrine, whereby it refused to maintain or to enter into diplomatic relations with any country that recognised East Germany; and it had even dropped, at least temporarily, the objective of reunification in favour of an Ostpolitik which normalised relations with the whole of Eastern Europe. There was no longer any point in the IOC, continuing to press for a joint German team at the Olympics.
A Chinese national Olympic committee was recognised as long ago as 1922. After the civil war between Nationalists and Communists, the NOC fled with the Nationalist government to Taiwan in 1951 and continued to be recognised. Meanwhile, the USA, its Cold War allies and the United Nations recognised Taiwan as 'China' and supported its claim to sovereignty over the mainland, although this was not unlike recognising a 'government' of the Isle of Wight as having jurisdiction over the whole of Great Britain. The Soviets and their satellites recognised the Communist-controlled mainland, which adopted the name 'People's Republic of China (PRC) '.
In 1952 both Chinas said that they intended to send athletes to the Helsinki Games. A majority of the IOC voted for both to he invited, thereby breaking its own rule that all teams must be sent by a recognised NOC. In the end only one athlete from the PRC presented himself for the Games at Helsinki, and none from Taiwan, which withdrew in protest against the decision to admit the PRC.
In 1954 the IOC, recognised the People's Republic's National Committee, while maintaining its recognition of Taiwan's. The PRC then withdrew from the 1956 Melbourne Games in protest at Taiwan's continuing membership and from the Olympic movement and all international federations in 1958. A Chinese IOC: member resigned with an abusive letter dubbing Brundage 'a faithful menial of US imperialists'.
Under continuing pressure from IOC members from the Communist bloc, who wanted Taiwan expelled and the PRC reinstated, the IOC agreed in 1959 that the Taiwan committee could not continue under its present name of China, since it did not administer sport on the mainland. The IOC made clear, though, that if it chose to reapply for admission under another name the application would be considered. This decision was generally misunderstood by the press, which thought Taiwan had been expelled, with the result that there was uproar in the USA. In due course Taiwan's NOC was recognised as the Olympic Committee of the Republic of China.
In 1971 the United Nations recognised the PRC and expelled Taiwan. In 1972 President Nixon visited China, the way having been prepared by 'ping-pong' diplomacy. Events in the Olympic world marched in tandem. In 1971 the IOC resolved that the PRC would be welcomed back if it respected Olympic rules, although it also insisted that Taiwan would not be excluded.
However, when in 1975 the PRC applied for reinstatement it stipulated that it would only re-join the Olympic movement if Taiwan were expelled. The Canadian government, which was hosting the Montreal Games of 1976, now made the situation worse because, having in l970 adopted a one-China policy, recognising the PRC as the sole representative of all Chinese, it now refused entry to the Taiwanese team if the word 'China' appeared in its name. Some members of the IOC were indignant enough to argue strongly that the Games should be cancelled, but it was eventually decided to go ahead. The Canadian government remained unrepentant in the face of consternation in the United States and disapproval throughout the Olympic movement. In fact the Taiwan team solved everything by packing its bags and going home the day before the Games.
This imbroglio occupied far more of the IOC's time than did the simultaneous boycott by African states against the fact that the IOC had refused to come out against South African rugby tour. Despite the fact that rugby was not an Olympic sport, the Africans saw this as an evasion of responsibility, and wanted the IOC to use its symbolic strength, although it had no formal locus standi.
Wrangling over China continued, but in the end both sides compromised with an agreement that the PRC's NOC be recognised as the Chinese Olympic Committee and Taiwan's as the Chinese Taipeh Olympic Committee.
As well as manoeuvrings over the status of disputed sovereignties, the Olympics were used as a stage for international politics when first one side in the Cold War, then the other, used the occasion to organise mass boycotts of the Games by their allies. The American boycott of the Moscow Games of 1980 (though the word was never officially used) was almost certainly the direct cause of the Soviet counter-boycott of the Los Angeles Games of 1984, (when 'boycott' was avoided in favour of 'non-participation'). Neither would have taken place if inter-governmental relations had been more cordial, and both threatened to split the Olympic movement.
Late in December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, and in January 1980 US president Jimmy Carter warned that in retaliation the United States would withdraw from the Moscow Olympic Games, due to begin at the end of July. In February he informed the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) that he expected it to withdraw the United States team. USOC ultimately agreed, partly because of the traditional respect in which Americans still held presidential policy in international affairs.
There was enormous pressure on USOC from both political parties and both Houses of Congress, as well as from the White House. Such opposition as there was ~ came from a coalition of dyed-in-the- wool Republicans and Democrats to the left of Garter. USOC argued that 'if the Games are to be disrupted every time there are human rights violations or aggressions in the world, the Games never would have been conducted for the last twenty-five or thirty years', but this cut no ice.
USOC could hardly have resisted governmental threats against its finances (and even against its Secretary-General's army pension) hut national fervour played its part. At the decisive meeting, addressed by Vice-President Walter Mondale, the boycotters won easily, by 1,604 to 797. As the months went by at least one former athlete found a good reason to change his mind towards favouring the boycott: this was Bruce Jenner, a former decathlon gold medal winner, who received letters from members of the patriotic public threatening not to eat Wheaties, a cereal product he promoted.
Carter insisted that he introduced the boycott solely to defend human rights, international law and the security of the USA and many other free world nations. He added that this stand did not detract in any way from the United States' devotion to the Olympic movement. He continued to believe that sports should be run by private bodies and not by governments.
The Soviet counter-campaign did not accept that the invasion of Afghanistan was the reason for the boycott. The 'real' reasons were that the USSR was a socialist country; that Carter wished to undermine detente and that he needed to salvage his failing popularity. The campaign's main lines appeared in an article in Soviet- ski Sport on January 20th, 1990:
We understand clearly why all real friends of sports and Olympism decisively oppose the provocative manoeuvres of supporters of Cold War in the United States, England and some other imperialist states, who are striving to utilise sport as an instrument of their policy and hinder the forthcoming meeting of world youth on the arenas of the Moscow Olympic Games... The foreign policy of the USSR which is clear to the peoples of the world, corresponds with their basic interests... and serves as a reliable support of all forces struggling for peace and detente. Supporting the cause of preserving the unity of the Olympic movement, striving to prevent interference of politicians in sport and participating in Moscow's holiday of youth – despite threats, slanderous tricks and political pressure – this is the attitude of the sports world and the public of the countries participating in the Olympic movement towards Olympiade in the first country of socialism.
Once Moscow had decided that no more acceptances of its invitation to the Games were likely to be received its line changed from the vituperative to the insouciant. Nothing serious had happened. There were vague threats of boycotting Los Angeles and the defeat of United States athletes by their own politicians was stressed. Afghanistan was seldom mentioned; when it was, it was presented as Carter's excuse for something that he had long been planning.
In the Third World the satellite or 'client' states of both superpowers followed their leaders, while states which had no particular relation or clientship with either party were divided, and most of Latin America took part in the Games.
The United States government did its best to persuade its allies to join the boycott. Western Europe vacillated, because many countries (France was a notable exception) hoped to present a united front, and because governments' responses were linked to other issues in foreign and domestic politics. For instance, West Germany desired to preserve its good relationship with the United States, yet did not wish to jeopardise its Ostpolitik by joining the boycott. Nor were most Western European governments willing to be seen to bring great pressure to bear upon their NOCs. Among the developed nations, the most important to follow the Americans were West Germany, Japan and Great Britain – the last a special case, in that the British Olympic Association decided to defy its government, and to send its team to Moscow.
Britain, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a major effort to follow American policy, although in the end without success. The issue sharply divided Parliament, the country and the media. Outside Parliament, pressure was put on the British Olympic Association, though to nothing like the American extent, and in the House of Commons the longest debate that the House had ever held on a sporting subject amply reflected the divisions in the country at large. The British government did not display the same mixture of ruthlessness and stupidity as the American, but, what turned public opinion against it was its insistence that the athletes would be behaving irresponsibly if they went to the Games, while trade and other official links were allowed to continue undiminished.
In the end 81 NOCs participated at Moscow, compared with 88 at Montreal (1976), 122 at Munich (1972) and 113 at Mexico City (1968). So politicised had the Games become that the political journalists nearly outnumbered the sports writers, and many papers carried two accounts of the same events, but from two very different points of view.
In his memoirs Carter defends his record, but goes on: 'I knew the decision was controversial, but I had no idea at the time how difficult it would be for me to implement it or to convince other nations to join us', and 'We had a struggle all the way; the outcome was always in doubt. Most Olympic committees were wholly independent bodies, whose members deeply resented any government involvement in their decisions.'
The Los Angeles Games of 1984 will no doubt be remembered largely as an exercise in superpower politics: had they not been boycotted by the Soviet Union they would probably have attracted far less public interest, indeed chauvinistic fervour, in the USA than they actually did.
On May 8th, 1984, the USSR announced its intention 'not to participate' in the Los Angeles games, which were due to begin on July 28th. The factors involved in the decision were many and complex, but the simple explanation for the boycott is probably the right one – tit for tat.
Although the USSR did not announce its intention to boycott the 1984 Games until very shortly before the deadline for acceptance of invitations, there had been doubt about whether its team would attend ever since 1980. The shooting down by the Soviets of a Korean airliner by the Soviet air force over Kamchatka at the end of August 1983 provoked reactions in the USA which in turn provided one of the excuses for Soviet non-participation. As a result of the attack, the California state legislature passed a resolution condemning the USSR and recommending that the Soviet athletes be banned from Los Angeles. A more significant result was the formation of the Ban the Soviets Coalition, an unimportant body in itself, but one to whose activities the Soviets were able to point as evidence of the United States' hostility.
There were four main issues: the cost of the athletes' stay in the Olympic villages; the United States government's recognition of Olympic identity cards instead of visas; permission for Aeroflot to take athletes to Los Angeles; and for a Soviet ship to dock in Los Angeles harbour. In addition the question of the Olympic attaché provoked much sound and fury, exacerbated by the failure of the State Department, which believed him to be a KGB official, to refuse him a visa until the last minute.
Peter Ueberroth, president of the Los Angeles organising committee, who had an exaggerated idea of the Games' importance in the State Department's great scheme of things, began to overplay his hand in conducting his own foreign policy, and to promise more than he could deliver. He tempted fate by telling the White House that the Soviet requests were in accordance with the Olympic Charter, and should be seen as a test of the Reagan administration's willingness to abide by it, but the professional diplomats took little notice of him.
The IOC and the Soviet NOC were doing their best to talk to each other, but communiqués could be no more than statements of Olympic hopes, whose intentions could only be achieved with the active agreement of the United States government. When the USSR announced its boycott, it plainly hoped not to create an irretrievable breach within the Olympic movement itself and so focused its attack on the US government and its connivance with the anti-Soviet campaign by reactionary forces in the USA. The Soviet bloc, with the exception of Romania, fell into line quite quickly, although it appears that no advance warning had been given, either to the satellites or to sports bodies within the USSR.
The State Department seems not to have been taken by surprise by the boycott, since it reacted very promptly. A spokesman stated that the United States government had 'gone the last mile' to accommodate Soviet requests. He added that the government had given no encouragement to Soviet émigré groups but, although it must be difficult for the Soviets to understand, the USA was a free country. The difference between the two boycotts was '...the extraordinary brutality shown by the Soviets in Afghanistan. There is no comparable action by the United States here'.
While the IOC did its best to limit the damage, the organising commit- tee was not idle. Intensive persuasion by telephone coupled with visits to key Eastern bloc countries such as Romania, China, East Germany and Cuba, brought the record number of 140 teams to the Games. In all 17 states boycotted Los Angeles, including six of the top ten medal winners at Montreal: the USSR, East Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Cuba and Hungary. Mario Vazquez Raña (the powerful president of the Association of National Olympic Committees) and Ueberroth travelled together to Cuba, where they were well received; but Castro would not break the boycott because, during the United States' boycott of Cuba in the 1960s, Cubans had been able to find no sporting opponents except teams from the Soviet bloc, and now he felt a debt of loyalty. The number of countries taking part was inflated by allowing some territories to participate which were not properly qualified according to Olympic rules. Tonga, for example, was admitted although it had insufficient affiliations to international federations.
Since Los Angeles the Olympic movement, like the world at large, has outgrown the Cold War, and the age of boycotts is generally thought to be past. However, these examples demonstrate the extraordinary waste of time, energy and passion that sport generated in the Gold War context. By that criterion sport was an important Cold War counter, though the cavalier way in which governments treated it suggest that it was ultimately unimportant, save symbolically and in the eyes of its own administrators.
Christopher R. Hill is the author of Olympic Politics (Manchester UP)
- Middle East
- North America
- South America
- Central America
- Early Modern
- 20th Century
- 21st Century
- Economic History
- Environmental History
- Historical Memory
- Science & Technology