President Jimmy Carter informs a group of U.S. athletes that, in response to the December 1979 Soviet incursion into Afghanistan, the United States will boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. It marked the first and only time that the United States has boycotted the Olympics.
After the Soviet Union intervened in Afghanistan in December 1979 to prop up an unstable pro-Soviet government, the United States reacted quickly and sharply. It suspended arms negotiations with the Soviets, condemned the Russian action in the United Nations, and threatened to boycott the Olympics to be held in Moscow in 1980. When the Soviets refused to withdraw their troops from Afghanistan, President Carter finalized his decision to boycott the games. On March 21, 1980, he met with approximately 150 U.S. athletes and coaches to explain his decision. He told the crowd, “I understand how you feel,” and recognized their intense disappointment. However, Carter defended his action, stating, “What we are doing is preserving the principles and the quality of the Olympics, not destroying it.” Many of the athletes were devastated by the news. As one stated, “As citizens, it is an easy decision to make—support the president. As athletes, it is a difficult decision.” Others declared that the president was politicizing the Olympics. Most of the athletes only reluctantly supported Carter’s decision.
The U.S. decision to boycott the 1980 Olympic games had no impact on Soviet policy in Afghanistan (Russian troops did not withdraw until nearly a decade later), but it did tarnish the prestige of the games in Moscow. It was not the first time that Cold War diplomacy insinuated itself into international sports. The Soviet Union had refused to play Chile in World Cup soccer in 1973 because of the overthrow and death of Chile’s leftist president earlier that year. Even the playing field was not immune from Cold War tensions.