The 1980 Olympic boycott revisited

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Canada was among the nations to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics to protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

 

First aired on Calgary Eyeopener (18/6/12)


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Around this time in 1980 there was enthusiasm in this country for the coming Summer Games in the Soviet Union. Canada was set to win medals and we had a strong contingent led by the swimming team. But none of the 212 athletes got to go because Canada joined a boycott of the Games. Sheila Hurtig Robertson looks at what happened and why, and how it affected Canadian athletics for years to come in her new book, Shattered Hopes: Canada's Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games.

The boycott story began on December 27, 1979, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Within weeks, "U.S. president Jimmy Carter began musing about boycotting the summer games," Hurtig said to Calgary Eyeopener host David Gray. He also began to put pressure on American allies around the world to do the same -- including Canada.

The newly elected Trudeau government "strongly suggested" that the Canadian Olympic Committee boycott the Summer Games, but ultimately it was up to the COA. However, in order to attend the games, the COA needed one thing: money. The Olympic Trust (an organization that no longer exists) controlled the purse strings. The Olympic Trust committee consisted largely of businessmen who were also war veterans. They weren't fans of the Soviet Union and they were keen to see Canada boycott the games. And in the end, they got their way.

The fallout from this decision was difficult for all involved, especially the athletes who had dedicated their entire careers to athletics in hopes of becoming an Olympian. It was "pretty devastating," Hurtig Robertson said. "There was physical and emotional impact ... one athlete told me she went through all the stages of grief."

But it wasn't just the athletes whose Games were taken away from them who suffered. According to Hurtig Robertson, the decision had a long-term impact. Future Canadian Olympic teams lost funding and the positive effect the Olympics have on future athletes was lost for four years. "Athletes become role models across the country and this was denied," Hurtig pointed out.

However, the 1980 boycott had positive impacts as well. The first-ever Athlete Advisory Council was formed, and for the first time ever, athletes were invited to a COA meeting to discuss the boycotting decision. Today, Canada has very strong athlete advocacy groups, and many of them are thanks to the athletes of 1980 whose own Olympic dreams were denied.

Could an Olympic boycott happen again? Hurtig Robertson thinks so, especially in these politically and economically volatile times. But she's confident about one thing: Canada learned a lot in 1980. If a boycott were on the table for a future Olympic Games, we won't make the same mistakes again.



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