Cold War Games
Despite a boycott that kept some of the world’s top athletes away, the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow produced many memorable performances, and a handful of improbable heroes – a giant, inflatable bear named Misha among them.
By Stephen Dewar
Ask your Russian friends what they remember best about the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the chances are that (assuming they are old enough to remember them and they are not Muscovites) they will break into song:
It’s getting quieter on the stands,
The time of wonders is fast melting away,
Goodbye, our gentle Misha,
Go back to your fairytale forest...
"Goodbye, Moscow" was the special song for the Olympics, written by a then-well-known duo, Nikolai Dobronravov and Alexandra Pakhmutova. Misha was the official mascot for the games – a cuddly bear with a winning smile, designed by Victor Chizikov, a popular Russian illustrator of children’s stories.
But the sentiment and spectacle of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow was a sort of Potemkin illusion, concealing a very different reality. At home, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, with only two years left to live, was already seriously ill and presided incompetently over a decaying and stagnating economy. Fear about how foreign visitors would perceive the reality of communist "bliss" led to bizarre steps being taken, such as importing goods from all over the Soviet Union and abroad, for example Finland, to stuff central Moscow shops, while Muscovite children were ordered out of town in case they met – and were contaminated by – foreign children who might expose the falsehoods they had been fed. By the time they returned, most of the goodies had disappeared from the shops and did not reappear until another ten years had passed and communism and the Soviet Union had collapsed. This is what the Muscovites remember, though the rest of the country was unaware of all this and understandably lapped up Misha, the sentimental song and the rest.
Misha floats away at the close of the Games.
Abroad, the ill-advised general secretary sent 50,000 Soviet troops into Afghanistan between December 1979 and January 1980, to shore up a communist insurgency that had overthrown the previous dynastic leadership in April 1978 and was now tearing itself apart with internal fratricidal strife, starting with the brutal murder of the coup-leader, Noor Mohammed Taraki, by his own foreign minister, Hafizullah Amin.
The 1980 games were, therefore, marred by the West’s reaction to how it perceived, not Misha, the cuddly bear of the fairytale forest, but a more familiar, distrusted and feared creature – the Russian Bear itself, once more on a dangerous rampage. Jimmy Carter was in the White House, pursuing a strongly moralistic foreign policy and deliberately upping the confrontation with the aggressive Soviet Union, bringing the temperature of the Cold War significantly higher than it had been for several years. And one of Carter’s responses to the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan was to prohibit U.S. athletes from participating in the Moscow Olympics.
Naturally, many in the U.S. and elsewhere thought that the Olympics should not be linked to politics. Sport, they argued, should be free of political games. Indeed, many argue it helps to bring together the different peoples of the world. But Carter threatened to revoke the passports of any American athlete defying the ban, which meant none could attend. Many other Western countries followed this lead by either imposing a formal ban, like the U.S., or by supporting the boycott but not forbidding individual athletes to participate, what Britain and Australia chose to do. Altogether sixty-five countries refused their invitation to attend, which left only eighty countries taking part, the lowest number since 1956, significantly fewer than the ninety-two that had taken part in Montreal four years earlier, and far below the 140 that took part in Los Angeles four years later. It was hardly surprising, then, that the top four countries in the medals table were the U.S.S.R., East Germany, Bulgaria and Cuba. (Italy came fifth).
Despite the boycott, the 1980 Olympics produced plenty of memorable performances.
Thus Moscow, the first city in a socialist country ever to host the games, was deprived of many of the finest athletes in the world. Despite this serious setback, there was still plenty of excitement and many outstanding performances at the Moscow games. For British enthusiasts and westerners whose own athletes were barred from competing, the highlight was the duel between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, who took part despite the disapproval of their government. Both ran in the 800m and 1,500m. Coe was expected to win the former and Ovett the latter. But it turned out the other way round – Coe won the 1,500m and went on to successfully defend it at Los Angeles four years later, the only athlete ever to do so at the Olympics. In turn, Ovett won the 800m, beating Coe by three meters. Like Coe, he went on to defend his title in L.A., but bronchitis ended his hopes and he was eventually carried off the track on a stretcher.
The boycott also had some amusing consequences. For instance, the Russian organizers found that all the women’s hockey teams had pulled out, leaving no opponents for the Soviet ladies. With just over a month to go, a last minute invitation was sent to Zimbabwe. A team was hastily assembled with only one week left and off it went to Moscow where, to everyone’s surprise, the African girls picked up the gold, a welcome achievement for the new president, a certain Robert Mugabe, who had only just come to power after vicious war for independence within the former Rhodesia the previous year. In reality, this may not have been a totally unalloyed pleasure for Mr. Mugabe, as the winning team was white and their skills had been honed on the playing fields of boarding schools in Britain and elsewhere, and not in the dusty shanty-towns and villages where the older indigenous inhabitants passed their lives.
Every Olympics produces its oddities and for the 1980 games, apart from Zimbabwe’s hockey triumph, perhaps the strangest result was in the men’s coxless pairs rowing event. The gold and silver medals both went to sets of identical twins. Bernd and Jorg Landvoigt of East Germany took first place, while Yuri and Nikolai Pimenov of Russia collected silver.
Sadly, boycotts were not unique to the 1980 games. In 1948, in London, although many countries participated for the first time, including Ceylon, Colombia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Panama, Puerto Rico, Syria and Venezuela and a number of communist countries, the U.S.S.R., Germany and Japan stayed at home. At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Soviet invasion of Hungary prompted Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands to withdraw, while Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon stayed out because of the ill-fated Franco-British Suez affair. China stayed away because Taiwan was invited. In 1976, it was the turn of several African countries to boycott Montreal because New Zealand, which had outraged international (especially African) opinion by sending a rugby team to play in apartheid South Africa. The U.S.S.R. led a partial boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles games in retaliation for the U.S. boycott in 1980.
For the Russians, despite the lack of the traditional American opponents, there were several outstanding successes. Alexander Dityatin, who had shown considerable promise at the Montreal Olympics, collecting two silvers and missing a bronze by one five-hundredth of a point, managed in front of his home supporters to amass a stunning eight medals in gymnastics, including six in one day, a record never before achieved and not yet surpassed. He was also, in the long horse vault, the first male gymnast ever to be awarded a perfect score of ten in an Olympic gymnastics competition.
Another Russian triumph was swimmer Vladimir Salnikov’s three gold medals in the 400m freestyle, 4x200m relay and 1,500m. He was the first man to cover 1,500m in less than 15 minutes. Eight years later, he made an extraordinary comeback by winning the 1,500m again.
It is 24 years since those games, and things have changed. Whereas in 1980 there were over 5,000 athletes and approaching 5,500 journalists, there will be over 10,000 athletes and an incredible 21,000-plus journalists in Athens. If Moscow wins the bid to host the 2012 Olympics, it will be a very different occasion to 1980, but hopefully some things will remain unchanged. In 1980, the closing ceremony was a brilliantly choreographed event with hundreds of Russians forming a human mosaic showing Misha the Bear shedding a tear at the end of this festival of peace. Perhaps Misha can be persuaded to come back out of his forest to grace the games with his presence. And next time, perhaps the games can be held without political protests and boycotts. Until then, as that song has it, "Farewell until new meetings."