Empire Strikes Back: Remembering when the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics

The Games were held in Los Angeles in a time when relations between the USSR and the US were strained

International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch

Image: AP / AP/Press Association Images

The run up to the Rio Olympics has seen a huge number of external factors surface which threatened to derail the entire Games.

This summer's Olympics have been overshadowed by the emergence of the Zika virus and the resulting withdrawal of top golfers, Brazil's political and economic turmoil as well as the conditions in which the athletes will be staying.

Prior to the start of the Games, the McClaren Report detailed evidence of Russian state-sanctioned doping, prompting calls for Russian athletes to be banned from the Games.

However, the Olympics have a history of controversy, and if this time out the Russian athletes were threatened with being forced out, in 1984 they decided to stay at home of their own volition.

During the 1980s, relationships between the USSR and the United States were strained. Four years previous to the 1984 Olympics in LA, the US led 60 countries in a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

The move was made after the USSR's invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. This spurred President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum on 20 January 1980, stating that if Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month, the US would boycott the Moscow Olympics in summer 1980.

President Carter was true to his word and did not send a US team to compete in Moscow, although Britain did send a team, meaning a certain Sebastian Coe beat Steve Ovett in the 1500m and became the first man to win consecutive gold medals in the event.

The Soviet Union were careful when it came to optics, to make sure that it didn't appear that they were simply out for revenge. However the Reagan Administration said the Soviet decision was ''a blatant political action for which there was no real justification."

Image: In this July 28, 1984, file photo, the Olympic flame is flanked by a scoreboard signifying the formal opening of the XXIII Olympiad after it was lit by Rafer Johnson during the opening ceremonies in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. AP Photo/Eric Risberg

For their part, the USSR cited security concerns for their athletes as a result of the "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States."

In a statement they said: ''Extremist organizations and groupings of all sorts, openly aiming to create 'unbearable conditions' for the stay of the Soviet delegation and for the performance by Soviet sportsmen, have sharply stepped up their activity with direct connivance of the American authorities.''

''In these conditions,'' the statement continued, ''the National Olympic Committee of the U.S.S.R. is compelled to declare that participation of Soviet sportsmen in the Games of the XXIII Olympiad in Los Angeles is impossible. To act differently would be tantamount to approving of the anti-Olympian actions of the U.S. authorities and organizers of the Games.''

The New York Times developed on this point in their article on May 8th of that year saying: "The reasoning among diplomats taking this view was that American authorities would be sharply limited for Constitutional reasons in what they could do to meet the primary complaint in the Soviet statement - the likelihood of anti-Soviet protests in Los Angeles. Under plans announced in Los Angeles, protesters will be barred from the Olympic Villages and competition sites, but will not otherwise face any special restrictions."

Moreover, countries who were considered allies of the Soviet Union followed suit.

Bulgaria, East Germany, Mongolia and Vietnam all announced that they would not be sending teams to the Games. Laos and Czechoslovakia also confirmed they would not be present for the Olympics after China decided that they would in fact be sending a team.

The biggest blow to the event came on May 24th, when Cuba became the eleventh country to announce its participation in the boycott. 

The news made front page headlines around the US. The Games would be without some of the world's most talented boxers, while the number of other countries dropping out would be detrimental across the board to the level of competition.

Image: Romania's Ecaterina Szabo performs on the beam during women's finals gymnastics competition Friday, Aug. 3, 1984. She won a Gold Medal in the Floor Exercise and in the Side Horse.  (AP Photo/Suzanne Vlamis)

It's important to point out that not all socialist countries boycotted the Games; Yugoslavia and Romania, as well as China all sent teams. Romania, in fact, ended up finishing third in overall medal count at the Games.

The US dominated the Games, collecting 83 gold medals, 61 silver medals and 30 bronze. Their huge number of gold medals was 63 clear of nearest rivals.

One of the stand-out performers at the Games was Carl Lewis, who was making his first of four appearances at the Olympics. He equaled the 1936 performance of Jesse Owens by winning four gold medals, in the 100m, 200m, 4 × 100m relay and long jump.

The growing tensions between the two countries acted as a backdrop for the Games in LA, eventually crossing the divide and entering the cultural consciousness as well as the sporting history books.

References were made to fallout, most notably in cartoon series The Simpsons. An episode in season four of the show features characters receiving free food from Krusty Burger should they possess a slip that features an event that was won by the United States. 

The events were rigged to ones that, it insisted, "communists never lose". However after the boycott is announced, a quick calculation by a faceless lawyer from the Krusty Korporation shows that they will end up garnering massive losses because of the promotion.

It was a reference to the famous offer made by McDonalds during the Games that, "If the US win, You win" promotion, giving away different items on their menu for different medal victories by Team USA. Much like the cartoon, the demands were huge on restaurants in real life, with rumours that outlets were running out of Big Macs that they had to give away for free.

The boycott also caused disruption for the 1988 Games, where tensions between socialist and non-socialist came to the surface once again, as the games took place in Seoul, South Korea. Coupled with the previous boycott, the Games were in a difficult place as they moved into the 1990s, evolving along with the geopolitical landscape across the globe.

Full List of countries who boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympic Games

  • Soviet Union
  • Bulgaria
  • East Germany
  • Mongolia
  • Vietnam
  • Laos
  • Czechoslovakia
  • Afghanistan
  • Hungary
  • Poland
  • Cuba
  • South Yemen
  • North Korea
  • Ethiopia
  • Angola
  • Albania
  • Iran
  • Libya