The 1980 US Olympic Boycott (Fall 2012)

On March 21st 1980, Jimmy Carter met with over one hundred of the US Olympic athletes, and explained to them why he was boycotting the Olympics that year in Moscow. His decision on boycotting the Olympics was because of the Soviet Union invasion in Afghanistan. He urged the athletes to agree with his decision and support him on it. Many athletes were very disappointed at first, but eventually saw his side and came to understand his decision. On January 20, 1980 Jimmy Carter declared that if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month, the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics. The forces that played a huge role in this boycott were politics and government, the role of specific individuals, and war/military.

Because of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan, President Carter asked the U.S. Olympic Committee to boycott the Olympics. 62 countries boycotted the Olympics that year and only 80 nations participated in the games, which was 60 less countries than Munich in 1972. That year the USSR won 195 medals, but because of this, there was some suspicion of cheating with the many medals won. On march 21st, 1980, Carter met with about 150 athletes and coaches to explain why he was making the decision he was making. President Carter stated, “I understand how you feel. What we are doing is preserving the principles and the quality of the Olympics, no destroying it.” Many of the athlete’s hopes and dreams were shattered at that point. For some, it was going to be their last run at an Olympic gold medal.

The athletes had very high emotions and their reactions ranged from angry and mad to disappointed and understanding. Many athletes spoke out at first because they had been training for the last four years for that Olympics. One stated,” As citizens, it is an easy decision to make- support the president. As athletes, it is a difficult decision.” Some athletes said that carter was just politicizing the Olympics. Most in the end, even though reluctant, ended up supporting President Carter’s decision, and did not argue his opinion. Boxer Muhammad Ali was sent out to Tanzania, Nigeria, and Senegal to try and persuade the leaders to join the US boycott. His public comments made to those leaders were publicized in the US, further showing US citizens that athletes support his decision. Muhammad Ali’s popularity and his decision to support the boycott again only hyped up the boycott even more in the US. In the end, his actions were seen as a failure because he had not convinced all the countries he had hoped for.

John Peterson was an Olympic athlete during the boycott in 1980. He is a wrestler from Wisconsin and was training for his last competition before he planned on retiring from the sport. I personally know John Peterson because I have gone to his wrestling camps and I now see him once every week for a bible study. John has traveled around the world preaching and wrestling, and I sat down and asked him a few questions about his experience in the 1980 boycott. John Peterson was training for freestyle for the 1980 Olympics. He said that there were rumors going around that the Olympics were going to be boycotted by the president, but no one at that time actually knew for sure. He had to keep training and get ready for his shot at the gold. When March came around, President Carter announced that he was going to boycott the Olympics because of the soviet’s invasion. After this was announce, athletes were at a loss for words because of how hard they had worked for this chance at the Olympics. John continued to train for the US Olympic trials, even though he knew that if he had won the trials and made a spot on the United States Olympic freestyle wrestling team, he would not be traveling to Moscow for the Olympics. Mentally, his attitude had changed for his training. This was going to be his last competition before he planned on retiring from wrestling. He continued to train for the trials, but he did not train as hard as he would have if he could’ve had the chance to go to the Olympics. He said that he was not as disappointed as some athletes, because he had already been to the Olympics before, and won two medals. It did hurt that he would not have another chance for another medal, but he saw that it hurt others that had never gone to the Olympics more. It also disappointed him that his last competition did not mean as much, since it did not matter if he won or not. Some athletes that had worked hard to qualify for the Olympic trials did not even show up to compete. John’s focused changed from working hard and competing, to some other events going on in his life like his bible mission he was planning on going to in another country soon. John went on to compete in the US Olympic trials, and made it to the finals where he then lost two out of three matches against his opponent. He said that if he knew he would have had a chance at going to the Olympics, his training and attitude would have been different, and he felt that he could have beaten his opponent. He then went on to coach for the US Olympic team, and helped Chris Cambell become a world Gold medalist the next year. That year before the Olympic Games, the US men’s freestyle wrestling team had beaten the Russians in a dual meet. This was the first time that they had beaten the Russians in 50 years. He thought that the US could have beaten them again at the Olympics, and brought back multiple gold medals for the US. The boycott changed the training and mentality of the US athletes that year, and altered the outcome of the 1980 Olympics.

The boycott changed the mindset of the competing athletes, and they did not train as hard because they knew they would not have their chance at a gold medal. The US Olympic Committee agreed to back President Carter’s boycott decision if in exchange there would be a financial aid program for the Olympic athletes put into place. After 1980, a program funding US athletes training for the Olympics was set up, and is still in place today. Even though many athletes began to understand where the president was coming from and backed his decision, it did not mean that they liked it.

One of the main forces that affected the boycott was Politics and Government. President Carter not only urged all of his American citizens to support his decision, but he also called on other countries to join the boycott with him. The President saw that the invasion was not something he was going to stand for and thought that the boycott would help put pressure on Russia. One foreign official said that “a boycott would be an effective symbolic protest because of its dramatic visibility to the citizens of the Soviet Union, regardless of whether or not the action provoked a response.” (Gil Craddock)

Another force that impacted the boycott was the Role of Specific Individuals. Jimmy Carter played the biggest role for the US because he was the president at that time, pushing for the boycott. Big name athletes next stepped in, supporting the boycott because they believed that the invasion in Afghanistan was wrong, and did not want Russia imposing their will on other countries. There were also many individuals that went to the Olympics that did not use their own flag. They used the Olympic flag instead to show their support the boycott.

The boycott in the end did not help out President Carter’s popularity in the voting poles. His popularity and support went down after the boycott. When interviewing John Peterson, he said that one of his team mates met Jimmy Carter a few years after the boycott. John’s teammate said that President Carter admitted that he thought that he may have made a wrong decision in boycotting the Olympics. His team mate assured him that he did the right thing in the end. Overall the politics and government played the biggest role in making the boycott happen. It changed the mindset of athletes everywhere and also made other countries boycott the 1980 Olympics.


  2. Christine Brennan, 4/13/2005,
  3. Gil Craddock, October 10 2010,
  4. Ministry for Culture and Heritage, August 30 2012,
  5. SCOTT M. REID, July 17, 2010,
  7. Interview with John Peterson, Freestyle wrestler in 1980