This Week in History: Jimmy Carter’s Ill-Advised Boycott Plan Began to Take Shape

Photo: Mary T Meagher and the poster that would have to wait four more years until Los Angeles 1984

It’s been 36 years since Jimmy Carter suggested the possibility (and followed through) of an Olympic boycott, thus depriving hundreds of hard-working athletes from the opportunity of attaining Olympic glory.

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It’s been 36 years since Jimmy Carter suggested the possibility (and followed through) of an Olympic boycott, thus depriving hundreds of hard-working athletes from the opportunity of attaining Olympic glory.


Felix Sanchez

A major problem with this boycott – and the subsequent retaliation by the soviets – is that the nations were already so obviously rivals/enemies. Even if we believe that Carter had a strong moral response to soviet action, as the quoted speech shows, he hoped the boycott would be a blow to soviet propaganda and investment. It then becomes hard to see the boycott itself as anything other than a piece of political propaganda.

Nevertheless, it is simply unrealistic to always sit back and repeat the mantra that sport and politics shouldn’t mix. Major sporting events are inextricably linked to politics, and they are always going to fit into a range of other political decisions. Even boycotts may have their place. This one was a bad idea, but the sporting isolation of South Africa did affect the political landscape in that country (granted that the boycott of New Zealand by some for not sharing that approach was certainly a step too far). The establishment were hurt by not being able to demonstrate a big part of their culture, and isolation abroad was an encouragement to opposition at home.

Personally, I just wish the Olympics wasn’t competed in nations at all.

Craig Lord

The trouble, Felix, is not that sport and politics do mix but that sport claims they don’t, sports leaders write that into constitutions and the Olympic Charter, they claim all works best that way, they hoist the flag of autonomy in the midst of all that (a self-protection mechanism that in the past has been used to place them beyond the law that applies to others) – and then they play politics and bow at the foot of it for financial and power reasons in realms well beyond the world of sport. That and the bad things that flow as a consequence of a bad system as well as bad individuals within it (one attracts the other) = end of autonomy; time to radically alter the structures that underpin world sports governance.
I hear your interpretation of Carter’s stand and, without wishing to sound as though I agree with the way he fought to fight his fight (using sportsman and women as soldiers for a fight beyond the world of sport – I don’t agree with that unless bodies such as the IOC take their event to the modern-day equivalents that would return thought to Berlin 1936 – we’re wiser and we should show it), there are times when fighting propaganda can indeed seem like propaganda itself – but it isn’t always the case: sometimes you have to take a stand if you really want things to change and no manner of compromise and going along to get along will get the job done (indeed such things simply serve to prop up the very thing that is wrong).

Jay Ched

Thank you John for your well written and balanced perspective on this unfortunate series of events. I am the same age as Brian Goodell and recall with intense anger the Carter speeches and articles on his decision thinking at that time “what will this prove”? Thankfully he only got one term, but the damage was done. It’s hard to believe that a whole generation of elite athletes from all sports were denied their chance at glory due to the 12 year span from 1976-1988 between “full” Olympic Games. And after 1976, the drop to two entrants per country in swimming events. Is that due in part to restoring the 200 IM to the program (cut after 1972 and reinstated in 1984) and also the fact that the OC wanted more diversification in potential medalists (due in part by very few countries that dominated the swimming program)? I won’t go further here since you’ve already covered everything for me. Thanks again for the in-depth analysis. I’d also add Linda Jezek and Kim Linehan on the women’s side from 1980 as those who deserved better.

Craig Lord

Yes, Jay, in part because there was little appetite for seeing 3 from one nation beat the rest – it was deemed a turn off for audiences – the embarrassment of ‘riches’ GDR would have been all the more galling, too. Minutes of FINA meetings at the time of the decision confirm that ‘chances for more nations’ and ‘too boring’ for audiences were among reasons to end the days of 3 per nation… while the IOC’s desire to keep numbers down at the Games was a key factor, too, discussion leaning towards better two per nation but ‘grow the program’… addition of 50 frees, w 4×200 at the time.


Not only did Carter’s boycott impact US swimmers, but also swimmers from other countries. Although Australia didn’t officially boycott Moscow games, Tracey Wickham decided not to go although she was WR holders in 400/800.


Caulkins was denied the greatest female IM swimmer of all time (Right now, that title goes to Klochkova, imo).

There’s some silver lining behind all the boycotts, had Soviet not boycotted Los Angeles, Salnikov would have swum and won and may not have continued long into Seoul. Reading stories about Salnikov, it was the fact that he missed LA that was the major drive of him going back into training for Seoul, hence made him greater legend.


Sporting isolation of South Africa was helpful because it was implemented by all countries (well, most of all countries).

Boycotting Olympics would not be successful/productive, because the show must go on, unless during wars.

Can you imagine if for some reason USA boycotts Rio, thus robbing Katie Ledecky the chance to cement her place as the greatest female swimmer of all time?

Craig Lord

No – and that won’t happen, aswimfan … but I can imagine situations in which the choices of hosts and those who granting hosting rights are so bad that it would be essential for the key competitive nations to wrest control of the situation, stay away and run their own ‘Games’. For that to be effective you need co-operation among those who claim they wish to do the right thing but when it comes down to it are often too weak and/or too joined-at-the-hip with the bad system that they find it impossible to match best-practice and words with deeds.


There was a good deal of pressure brought to bear on other nations to join the 1980 boycott. Japan, Canada, West Germany were the most notable although China (readmitted to IOC in 1979) also boycotted.

The governments of AUS, GBR & FRA supported the boycott but stop short of outright ordering their Olympic federations not to attend. However, there was significant pressure brought to bear on various national sporting bodies which saw some sports from these nations not represented.

Craig, whilst we may not see a politically induced boycott in the short term future; may we not see some widespread absenteeism this year in Rio especially with regards to the Zika virus on top of other health issues ?

It is far too late to relocate the Games “lock stock and barrel” to another host city but it may be a choice of cancellation or relocating the various competitions to other cities in other countries who are able to host a major event for the specific sport and label that as the 2016 Olympic championships.

There is such a precedent. In 1956, the AUS quarantine regulations of the time didn’t allow the entry of foreign horses so the equestrian competition was held earlier in the year in Stockholm.

It’s not a scenario anyone would want to see but sadly, it may be very much “in play”. It may well be that the 2016 “vintage” may be deprived of their Olympic opportunity unless some decisions are made …. and made quickly.

Craig Lord

Yes, CW, I think there are issues that may override political expectations; no-one would want to see the games affected in that way but there are circumstances in which authorities would have a responsibility to act. As far as I’m aware (?), there are no travel restrictions (cautions, yes) placed on Brazil because of the Zika virus.


At the end of 1979, beginning of 1980 the majority of Soviet people had zero knowledge about events in faraway land called Afghanistan and about casualties on both sides. What was happening there looked like the Arabic Spring of 2011 where old regime was replaced with something seemed to be more democratic. The word ‘intervention’ was never mentioned. The boycott was taken as the business as usual – if someone from the West doesn’t want to show up with peace and friendship – the main idea behind OG, then what can be done. Has boycott had significant economic consequences? Hardly. The entire idea of 1980 boycott was stupid and didn’t succeed at any point. Same can be said about boycott of 1984 Games. Carter was never the Olympian and probably had no idea what was sacrificed for nothing.


The competitive Sport is not an Art. It is about win and defeat. It is about to be better than others. It is about the belief of being special. Isn’t it a definition of propaganda? The competitive Sport and propaganda are twins. Two branches of the same tree – pride and domination. No wonder that sport and politics are inseparable. The Olympics Games started as a substitution to wars – the extreme form of politics.


“…the Olympics wasn’t competed in nations at all..”. Sure it is possible. Can one imagine Roger Federer wrapped in Swiss flag screaming and jumping around the court after winning Wimbledon? Or some other member of Grand Slam competition acting similar way? Djokovic did it once dedicating his win to Serbian people. But it was once and then he stopped doing that for good. Nationally oriented Olympic tennis tournament is of little interest. The commercialization of Sport can do the trick. Instead of Krisztina Egerszegi who was standing on the podium, hiding her face behind National flag we will have Katinka Hosszu who finds some other attractive aspects of being on the podium. And I am not sure what is better – Pride or Greed 🙂

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