top of page

Sport and Politics: The Olympic Games, Part 5

By Pete Usher

A lengthy gestation period was involved at Montréal.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“The Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby.”

Montréal mayor Jean Drapeau (translated).

1976: Montréal.

92 nations; 6073 athletes; 21 sports; 198 events.

Failed bids: Los Angeles, Moscow.

After the tragic events of Munich, Montréal represented a chance to return to the Olympic ideal. However, the events of September 1972 still hung over the Games – the Israeli team entered the Olympic Stadium with a black ribbon adorning their flag, and security was much higher, and much more visible.

Montréal had won the bid in 1970, beating Moscow and Los Angeles (who would be the next two hosts), and had estimated the total cost of the Games at C$120 million, with the main stadium coming in at C$71 million. French architect Roger Taillibert was selected to design the new facilities – he had been in charge of the Parc des Princes rebuild in Paris, which had opened in 1972, at an estimated cost of $18 million against an initial budget of $12 million. Taillibert’s design was formally accepted in April 1973, although there was some resistance from Quebecois architects and engineers, who were annoyed that they had not had the chance to bid for such a prestigious project. Regardless, construction started on 28th April, 1973.

Unfortunately for the organisers, the Quebecois trades unions were in a position to flex their muscles, especially the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (Quebec Federation of Labour, FTQ), led by André “Dédé” Desjardins. With links to organised crime, Desjardins ran the union with an iron fist, and clearly saw the Olympic construction as an opportunity for personal gain, as well as for his members. Delays were common, and two significant strikes meant that the Olympic complex was at risk of not being ready in time for the Games.

André Desjardins, le roi de la construction.

Picture courtesy Radio Canada.

Despite Desjardins having to step down as FTQ leader in 1974 (the result of a separate labour dispute at the James Bay hydro-electric project, which then triggered a judicial review), he was still crucial to the success of the construction. By now known as le roi de la construction (The King of Construction), attempts were made by Taillibert and Montréal Mayor Jean Drapeau to get Desjardins on side, treating him to lunch at the Ritz-Carlton. When this didn’t work, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa is believed to have made a deal with Desjardins, allowing work to progress.

It would later be revealed (by the Cliche Commission, appointed by Bourassa himself) that the Bourassa government worked hand-in-hand with corrupt gangster union leaders such as Desjardins. It lead to a crushing defeat for Bourassa’s Liberal Party to the Parti Québécois in the 1976 provincial elections, losing 76 of the 102 seats they had held, from a total of 110 in the Assembly.

The Olympic Complex was ready for use on time, although not all the work had been completed, and workers were still sweeping debris away as the Greek team prepared to enter the stadium for the opening ceremony. Taillibert blamed delays and cost overruns on local firms either not doing the job correctly, or being unfamiliar with the novel construction techniques and materials he used for the design. Others suggest endemic corruption and use of union power to increase overtime added to the costs. Regardless of the reason, costs for the Games were utterly out of control. Security alone cost C$100 million, and the final cost was immense – from the initial 1970 estimate of C$130 million, the bill had increased to C$310 million by 1973, and ended up at C$1.6 billion, over 12 times the initial cost. It famously took 30 years to pay off the debt incurred.

The Canadians (well, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau) then managed to create their own political controversy. The People’s Republic of China had been boycotting the Olympics since 1958, due to the presence of the Republic of China (Taiwan), which the PRC still sees as part of China to this day. However, in 1975 the PRC applied to rejoin the Games, with one condition – that Taiwan (ROC) was decertified, so that only one team would be competing as China. There was a lot of discussion between the IOC, Canada, the USA, the ROC, and the PRC. The US strongly supported Taiwan, Canada supported the PRC, and it was technically the IOC’s decision to make.

Trudeau then went public with his compromise solution – the ROC team would be able to compete, but under the moniker of Taiwan. Obviously, this satisfied no-one. The ROC team withdrew from the Games the day before they started. Trudeau was widely criticised, especially in the American press. The New York Times called it: “Flagrant political abuse and misuse” of the Games, and the Washington Post said: “The cowardly, deceitful conduct of the government of Canada is trying the world’s patience just a little too much.”

A political scandal involving Pierre Trudeau? Incroyable!

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

But the biggest political impact on the Games was triggered by a different sporting event, one which had nothing to do with the Olympics. A rugby tour.

South Africa’s infamous Apartheid policy had led to the nation being suspended from the Olympics in 1964, and expelled in 1970, the same year that the International Cricket Council (ICC) imposed a moratorium on tours to (or from) South Africa. Football was ahead of many sports for once, with FIFA suspending the South African team in 1961 and then again from 1965, before expelling them in 1976. But rugby union was different.

Despite Apartheid, South Africa remained a member of the International Rugby Board (IRB), tours involving South Africa still happened. The British and Irish Lions had toured there in 1962, 1968, and 1974, and New Zealand had also visited, albeit less frequently. In 1960, the South African authorities had excluded the All Black’s Maori players, which meant it would be another decade before the next tour, when Maori and Samoan players were given the status of ‘honorary whites’.

Bryan Williams, an All Black and an "honorary white".

Picture courtesy Wikipedia.

The 1976 tour sparked more reaction. Six more Maori and Samoan players were given the ‘honorary’ status, and it was supported by the New Zealand Prime Minister Rob Muldoon, but the tour was widely seen as giving tacit support to the Apartheid regime. A number of African nations, led by Congo, wanted the IOC to ban the New Zealand team from the Olympics as a result of the tour. When a ban was not forthcoming, some 30 African teams, along with Afghanistan, Albania, El Salvador, Guyana, Iraq, Sri Lanka, and Syria, boycotted the Games. Of those, Morocco, Cameroon, and Egypt had taken part in some initial events, but withdrew after the first couple of days. Only two African countries (Senegal and Ivory Coast) competed throughout the Games.

After all this, there was some sport. And some cheating, with the East German team finishing second in the medal table, pushing the USA to third. It was later revealed that the East German team had undergone significant doping, with leftover drugs and syringes being dumped in the St Lawrence River by the Stasi. The Russian pentathlete Boris Onishchenko was found to have a switch in his épée which allowed him to register a point in the fencing without actually striking his opponent. He was disqualified.

1980: Moscow

80 nations; 5256 athletes; 21 sports, 203 events.

Failed bids: Los Angeles.

After the financial disaster that was Montréal, and with Lake Placid the only candidate for the 1980 Winter Games, Moscow won the two horse race to host the 1980 Games, ahead of Los Angeles, as the IOC did not want both Games to be in the same nation (which was the opposite of the original awarding process, discontinued in 1940). This would be significant: the first Games in a Communist country; the first in a Slavic language speaking country; and the last under the IOC Presidency pf Michael Morris, 3rd Baron Killanin.

In June 1979, a resolution to the long-running dispute between China and Taiwan over the naming of the teams was proposed. The People’s Republic of China would use that name, and the Republic of China (Taiwan) would be referred to as Chinese Taipei. This allowed the Communist government to pretend that Taiwan was still a dependent province of China, whilst allowing both nations to compete. The proposal was put to a postal vote, and the result confirmed the decision on 26th November 1979. It looked like there were no barriers to full participation at the Moscow Games.

And then, on 25th December 1979. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

The history of Afghanistan, the build-up to the invasion, and the aftermath, both short- and long-term, would easily fill another series of articles. Historically, a significant location in the 19th Century ‘Great Game’, Afghanistan had become another front in the Cold War, with the complex dance of India/Pakistan/China/USSR/USA relationships making it of significant interest. In April 1978, the Saur Revolution had led to the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) seizing power, and establishing a one-party Socialist state.

There were two main wings within the PDPA: Khalq, which had (apparently) been the leading force behind the revolution, and formed most of the leadership of the new government, and Parcham. Parcham were seen as more pragmatic, looking to socio-economic reforms ahead of a revolution, whereas Khalq were more aligned with the overthrow of the government. Although the two wings cooperated during the 1978 revolution, Parchamites were purged from government, and the Khalq-led regime began arresting, jailing, and even executing those it saw as deviating from Marxism-Leninism.

The PDPA government initiated a number of reforms, changed the flag of the country, none of which went down well in the more conservative rural parts of the nation. Usury was banned, but no alternative was put in place for those who needed credit. Agricultural production dropped, and armed revolt against the new government started in pockets across the nation. In December 1978, a treaty was signed allowing the Afghan government to call on the Soviet Union for help, and in mid-1979, that help started arriving, in the form of equipment and “technicians”.

In September 1979, Chairman Mur Muhammad Taraki was couped by Hafizullah Amin, and later killed. Under Amin, repression got worse, with thousands disappearing under his regime. Russian dissatisfaction with the regime in Kabul led to the invasion, and on 27th December, the Russians captured key buildings in Kabul, including the Tajbeg Palace, Amin was assassinated, and Parchamite Babrak Karmal was installed as the new Afghan leader, the Soviets viewing Parcham as a more moderate faction that was better able to govern.

Brezhnev (left) ordered the invasion of Afghanistan and installed Karmal as the new Afghan leader. The invasion was not a success.

Picture courtesy History Online.

International reaction was swift, widespread and, unsurprisingly, negative. Foreign ministers of over 30 Muslim-majority nations criticised the invasion, and the UN General Assembly voted to condemn the action. The Chinese leadership were critical of the Soviet-backed coup, and the USA put various sanctions on the USSR, including a trade embargo, withdrawing their ambassador, and taking the SALT-II strategic arms treaty off the table for formal ratification. And by January 1980, the proposal for a boycott of the Moscow Games was gaining traction, with calls for non-participation led by US President Jimmy Carter.

Ultimately, 67 nations that were invited to the Olympics did not participate at all, mostly the United States and her allies, along with many Islamic Conference members (including the newly theocratic Iran) and China. Some western countries took part, but under the Olympic flag, and many skipped the opening ceremony entirely. Both Great Britain and Ireland left the decision to the governing bodies of individual sports, resulting in smaller teams. As a result, there are only five countries that have participated at every Summer Games to date (Great Britain, France, Greece, Switzerland, and Australia), and only one country has won at least one Gold at each of those Games (GB). Meanwhile, some alternate events were organised – in the USA, the Liberty Bell Classic, held in Philadelphia, had athletes from 29 countries, most of whom had boycotted Moscow, although only half the winners of the US Olympic Trials took part.

The fallout from the boycott would not be limited to the Moscow Games.

Against this background, the Soviet Union and East Germany dominated the Games, winning over half the available Gold Medals, and total medals, between them. The gap in performance was incredible – the USSR won 80 Golds and 195 medals in total; East Germany won 47 Golds and 126 medals in total. The third placed nation, Bulgaria, won 8 Golds and 41 medals in total.

Unsurprisingly, no athletes tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Later testing suggests that at least 16 Gold medallists would have failed more modern test regimes.

There was one notable protest at the Games. Polish pole vaulter Władysław Kozakiewicz won the Gold with a new world record of 5.78m. Throughout the event, the crowd had been extremely hostile to all non-Soviet athletes, and officials had opened stadium doors to allow wind in, in an attempt to disrupt the Pole’s attempts. Kozakiewicz’s response was simple and direct – he repeatedly gave a bras d’honneur gesture (sometimes called the Italian Salute) to the crowd.

After the Games, the Soviets demanded that Kozakiewicz be stripped of his medal for causing such great offense to the Soviet people. The Polish government responded by saying that the gesture had been the result of a muscle spasm caused by Kozakiewicz’s exertion. Kozakiewicz would defect to West Germany in 1985.

"A muscle spasm."

Picture courtesy

1984. Los Angeles

140 nations; 6800 athletes; 21 sports; 221 events.

Failed bids: None.

The United States had bid (unsuccessfully) for every Summer Olympics since the cancelled 1944 Games, but it wasn’t until the unopposed Los Angeles bid for the 1984 Games that the Olympics returned to the USA. Ironically, the previous time LA had hosted, in 1932, the city had also been the only bidder.

With the Moscow Games having been hit hard by the 67 nation boycott, there was a hope that this would be a fully attended Games. However, in early May 1984, the Soviet National Olympic Committee announced they would not be sending a team, citing concerns about safety, anti-Soviet rhetoric, and the commercialisation of the Games, which they claimed went against the Olympic ideals. The Soviets were very careful not to use the words “boycott” or “revenge” in their statements, although many commentators used those words to describe the decision.

Over the next month, a number of Soviet allies and satellite states announced they would not be sending teams, with the total reaching 15 nations by the time of the Games. The countries involved in the boycott were: Afghanistan, Angola, Bulgaria, Cuba (which was seen as detrimental to the boxing and baseball competitions), Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Ethiopia, Hungary, Laos, Mongolia, North Korea, Poland, Soviet Union, South Yemen, and Vietnam. Romania sent a team, and Romanian athletes received an especially warm welcome in Los Angeles. This would prove to be Romania’s most successful Olympics, as they won 20 Gold medals and a total of 53 medals, finishing second in the medal table.

There were three other countries who boycotted the Games, independently of the Soviet-led withdrawal. Iran did not attend “in view of United States interference in the Middle East, its support for the regime occupying Jerusalem and the crimes being committed by the USA in Latin America, especially in El Salvador,” although this was announced a year before the Games opened.

Libya withdrew after Libyan journalists were refused entry to the US, along with bans on US imports to Libya and travel by US passport holders to Libya.

Finally, Albania boycotted, as it had done in 1980. China’s growing relationship with the USA had led to the Sino-Albanian split, and had left Albania opposed to both the Soviet Union and the USA.

Once they had announced they would not be attending, the Soviet Olympic Committee confirmed that “Moscow would not support any alternative games staged to compete with the Olympics”, but it was also stated that the Eastern Bloc would hold various events in different nations as a substitute for Olympic competition, although at a different time to the Los Angeles Games. The Friendship Games were confirmed by Czechoslovak Olympic Committee president Antonin Himl.

While the Eastern Bloc sent strong teams (effectively their full Olympic squads), participants from Western nations were typically limited to those who had not qualified for the Olympics, although some Olympic medallists, such as Claudia Losch, who won Gold for the shot putt for West Germany, did take part. Events were hosted in nine countries, starting with North Korea holding the table tennis competition in early July, but there was little direct competition with the Olympics. Indeed, only equestrian events took place while the LA Games were on.

Opening of the Friendship Games. Unsurprisingly, the USSR dominated.

Picture courtesy Marxist Culture.

Unsurprisingly, Eastern Bloc countries dominated, with the USSR winning 126 of the 242 Gold medals. Of the non-Olympic boycotting nations, only West Germany, Italy, and Japan won solitary Golds.

Comparisons between the two events are difficult due to differing conditions and venues, but Friendship Games performances would have secured over 60 medals had those results been replicated in Los Angeles. For some events, such as weightlifting and wrestling, all the top competitors were in the Friendship Games.

Of course, the impact of state-sponsored doping must also be considered when looking at results from this era. The Olympics was seen as a key indicator of prestige in the struggle between Capitalism and Communism, and full-time athletes and drug programmes were common in the Eastern Bloc. In 2016, documents were shared that suggested that the Soviets had a massive doping programme, but realised that the testing regime in place for Los Angeles would catch those athletes affected. The suggestion was that, in order to avoid embarrassment, a ‘boycott’ would allow them to save face.

Although there were suggestions that the Friendship Games could be a regular event, no further editions have been held. In 2023, Russia announced a revival, the World Friendship Games, to be held in 2024, after the Paris Olympics.

Even with the boycott (that wasn’t an official boycott), a record number of countries took part, including both the People’s Republic of China (as China) and the Republic of China (as Chinese Taipei). Eighteen nations made their Olympic debut, although none won medals.

Apart from the boycott, the Games themselves were free of political controversy. And, unlike the financial disaster of Montréal and the state-funded Moscow Games, Los Angeles became a template for financial success. Old venues were reused (the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum had been used for the 1932 Games), strict controls on spending were put in place, and corporate sponsors were to the fore. Coupled with income from television rights, the Los Angeles Games turned a profit of over $200 million.

Discuss this article Here.


bottom of page