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East, West and The Olympic Rift: Remembering The 1980 Olympic Games

With the Soviet-Afghan War in its brutal infancy, the US led 65 countries in boycotting the Moscow Games. The Olympic rift was opened – an event which has resonance to this day.
July 28, 2016, 6:14pm
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In the midst of the track and field events at Rio 2016, one nation will be conspicuous in its absence. It is a country which has contributed more to the story of the modern Games than perhaps any other, a symbol of athletic heroism to some and of ruthlessness, oppression and steely discipline to others. Now, ahead of the Rio Olympics, it is a nation which has been plunged into one of the greatest sporting crises of the 21st century, and plagued with evidence of systematic, state-sponsored doping amongst its top competitors. When the Summer Olympics finally open, some of the most famous athletes in Russia will be missing from the scene.

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It's not the first time that the Russians have found themselves on one side of the Olympic rift. The first time was in 1980, when the shoe was somewhat on the other foot. Then, it was British, French and Italian athletes (amongst others) who were forced to compete under the Olympic flag. Then, it was the West which was absent from the Games, and the West's great athletes who were persona non gratae in the heart of Communist Europe, Moscow.

If, as Vladimir Putin has claimed, the banning of Russian athletes from Rio is political, it's a rather subtler form of politics to that which saw Western athletes miss out on the 1980 Olympics. Today, Russian competitors face an extensive ban owing to compelling evidence of doping, performance enhancement and organised cheating, a point of fact which is hard to ignore regardless of the renewed geopolitical tensions between East and West. In 1980, there could be no doubt as to the reasons for the West's absence from the Games. With the United States at their head, 65 countries officially boycotted the Summer Olympics. They did so in direct protest at the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan, which had begun in all its blood and fury the year before.

Soviet shock troops prepare for operations in Afghanistan // Via

Though there had been an international outcry from the start of the invasion, things came to a head between East and West in January 1980. With Soviet tank divisions still rolling over the northern border, US President Jimmy Carter offered the USSR an ultimatum: end the war in Afghanistan within a month, or face a comprehensive Olympic boycott from America and its allies. The war continued to rage and, with Soviet forces initially delivering a series of crushing victories, there was absolutely no chance they were going to back down. The deadline for Carter's ultimatum passed, and the boycott came into action. The US declared its intention to snub the Games, and was soon followed by Japan, West Germany and a raft of other nations.

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While not all of those who boycotted the Games did so to please America, the Soviet-Afghan War was nonetheless the common cause. China, Iran and several other powers hostile to the US also declined to send athletes to Moscow, either because of their anger at the resulting instability in Central Asia or in national and Islamic accord. Britain, France, Italy and Australia all supported the boycott, but allowed individual athletes to decide whether or not to travel to Moscow under the Olympic flag. It was a difficult decision for many sportsmen and women but, ultimately, the thought of squandering the ultimate opportunity outweighed the political pressure, and dozens of them decided to take part.

Jimmy Carter and Leonid Brezhnev at peace talks in 1979, mere months before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan // Via

The Moscow Olympics began on 19 July, with the opening ceremony taking place at the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium. With so many nations missing, and so many competitors flying the Olympic flag, it could have been a somewhat deflating affair. The organisers compensated in typically Soviet fashion, inviting composer Andrei Golovin to conduct a trumpet fanfare, having red chariots parade about the stadium running track, and then blasting out the state anthem as a choreographed card stunt formed a giant hammer and sickle in the stands. There was pomp and pageantry aplenty, even if it didn't do much to lighten the rather serious mood.

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Overlooked by the stern visage of Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev, the participating athletes paraded around the stadium. With Russian casualties mounting over the Afghan border, Brezhnev most likely had other things on his mind. While the USSR's invasion was meant to pacify popular rebellion against the pro-Soviet Afghan government, it had in fact only exacerbated the problem. Nationalist and Islamist sentiment was high in the occupied territories, the mujahideen had increasing support, and thousands of Russian soldiers were engaged in vicious guerrilla fighting in the mountains, with more and more dying as the Games wore on.

Despite the grim situation in Afghanistan, the Olympics went predictably well for the Soviets. With most of their international rivals absent, Russian athletes cleared up. The USSR ended up top of the honours table with 195 medals, 80 of them gold. Their nearest challengers were East Germany, whose athletes managed to collect 126 medals, and Bulgaria, who ended up with 41.

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Inevitably, the honours table ended up looking rather unusual by the end of the Games. Communist countries with very little Olympic pedigree ended up near the summit, with Cuba, Hungary and Romania all featuring in the top ten. Even more strange was the fact that out of 9,292 drugs tests taken, none returned a positive result. Considering what we know now about doping in Russia, one suspects that someone could have pioneered sample swapping long before Sochi 2014.

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Sprinter Kathy Smallwood was one of the high-profile British athletes who went to the Games // PA Images

Politicians in the West doubtlessly felt the boycott had been effective, with many dismissing the competitive standard of the Games in terms which might seem remarkably familiar. Participation in some events was limited, with field hockey and equestrian sports particularly hard hit. However, 36 world records were set in Moscow, as well as 39 European records and 74 Olympic firsts. The truth is that, despite the boycott, the event was anything but an outright failure. Indeed, the USSR's sporting success was a huge propaganda coup, and much-needed considering the morale-sapping nature of the Afghan War.

There were brilliant individual performances in Moscow, stunning feats of athletic endeavour and entertainment galore. In that sense, it was an Olympics like any other, and the political circumstances were transcended by sport. In some ways, the boycott made it an egalitarian event, with so-called 'Third World' competitors qualifying for more events and taking home more medals than ever before. The Games also attracted over five million spectators, which was well over a million more than the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

Seb Coe famously won the men's 1,500m race in Moscow // PA Images

Ultimately, the Olympics survived the absence of its sporting superpowers. That said, the Olympic rift which had been opened would not be easy to heal. The Soviets went on to boycott the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles – as did almost the entirety of the Eastern Bloc – in protest at what they called "the chauvinistic sentiments and anti-Soviet hysteria" of America and its accomplices. The 1980 Olympics had set a new precedent for the Games' politicisation, and opened a schism in the world of sport which divided East and West more deeply than ever before.

While some might have assumed that the end of the Cold War heralded the closing of the Olympic rift, the complexion of this summer's event suggests otherwise. The USSR lost its long war in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union was disbanded and, accordingly, the great divide should have been mended once and for all. Unfortunately, it hasn't quite worked like that, and the legacy of the East-West schism is pervasive, whether it be in political outlook or attitudes to doping. Moscow set a precedent which has never been forgotten.

When a depleted Russian team parades defiantly around Rio, their footsteps will echo with the sound of the Moscow Games.

@W_F_Magee