The Boycott Appendix: a short history and list of Olympic boycotts

The Olympic Games and boycotts have met on many occasions since the return of Olympism with the Games of the modern era in Athens 1896.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Colorsport/Shutterstock (3158483a)
Athletics - 1980 Moscow Olympics - Opening Ceremony Flag bearer GBR British Olympic Association (BOA) General Secretary Dick Palmer carries the Olympic flag for Great Britain in the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium Moscow USSR No British athletes took part and the Union Jack was not used in the ceremony in acknowledgment of the American-led boycott of the Games by 65 countries in response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 1980 Moscow Olympics
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Mandatory Credit: Photo by Colorsport/Shutterstock (3158483a) Athletics - 1980 Moscow Olympics - Opening Ceremony Flag bearer GBR British Olympic Association (BOA) General Secretary Dick Palmer carries the Olympic flag for Great Britain in the Grand Arena of the Central Lenin Stadium Moscow USSR No British athletes took part and the Union Jack was not used in the ceremony in acknowledgment of the American-led boycott of the Games by 65 countries in response to the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan 1980 Moscow Olympics Sport

The Olympic Games, in their modern form, have been around for more than a century, and in that time they have been the scene of numerous political actions despite the International Olympic Committee (IOC) marketing the Games as apolitical. A short summary and list of Olympics boycotts can be found below.

- BERLIN 1936: While there were serious considerations of a boycott due to the discriminatory policies of the Nazi government, no countries officially boycotted the Games on the grounds of those discriminatory polices. There was, however, a single country that boycotted the 1936 Summer Olympics do to another political dispute, Ireland. According to the Irish Post, the Olympic Council of Ireland decided to boycott the Games after the National Athletic and Cycling Association (NACAI) was suspended by the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF). The IAAF had changed its constitution to recognize member federations as representing political entities. The NACAI represented athletes from all parts of Ireland, regardless of political boundaries, and thus rejected the amendment. The NACAI was subsequently suspended by the IAAF. According to National Geographic, there was also an organized effort by leftist organizations and individual athletes to hold an anti-fascist Olympics, known as the Popular Olympics in 1936, but that event was ultimately disrupted and cancelled by the on-set of the Spanish Civil War.

- HELSINKI 1952: Although the Republic of China (Chinese Taipei) had sent a delegation of athletes to Helsinki, the country ultimately pulled out of the Games three days before the start of competition. This was done in protest of the athletes from the People’s Republic of China being allowed to compete at the Games. The two China situation would continue to plague the IOC and Olympic Games for a few more editions.

- MELBOURNE 1956: The 1956 Summer Olympics saw three separate political boycotts staged. The first was in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were parties to this boycott. The second boycott was in protest of the Franco-British Suez intervention. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon were parties to this boycott. Finally, the last boycott was again caused by the China situation. This time, the People’s Republic of China withdrew from the Games after athletes from the Republic of China (Chinese Taipei) were allowed to participate under their own flag and name. Importantly, the political boycotts of the 1956 Summer Olympics are widely viewed as setting a precedent for future political boycotts of the Olympic Games over the following decades.

- TOKYO 1964: The circumstances surrounding the decision of a few countries to boycott the 1964 Summer Olympics had to do with geopolitics, sports politics, and anger with the IOC. The issue stemmed from Indonesia’s decision not to issue visas to athletes from Israel or the Republic of China (Chinese Taipei) when the country hosted the 1962 Asian Games. The IOC then placed sanctions on Indonesia, with the Indonesian government retaliating by forming the Games of the New Emerging Forces as a mainly political response. The People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Indonesia ultimately boycotted the 1964 Summer Olympics after the IOC announced that any athletes who had competed at the Games of the New Emerging Forces would be barred from participating at the Olympic Games.

- MEXICO CITY 1968: While North Korea was the only country to boycott the 1968 Summer Olympics, due to issues once again stemming from their participation at the Games of the New Emerging Forces, the Games were by no means free of political controversy. The Games saw protests against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia by gymnast Vera Caslavska, and protests against racial discrimination and inequality by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos. There was also the Tlatelolco Square massacre that happened a mere ten days before the 1968 Summer Olympics, in which an undetermined number of students, generally estimated to be well into the hundreds, were killed after the Mexican government forces opened fire on students protesting at the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. Among the chants that day was, “We don’t want Olympics, we want revolution!”.

- MUNICH 1972: Many African countries threatened to boycott the 1972 Summer Olympics if the invitation for Rhodesia to compete was not withdrawn. The boycott was narrowly avoided days before the Games, when the IOC voted 36 to 31 to expel the Rhodesian delegation from the Games. The 1972 Summer Olympics would ultimately be remembered for the tragic terrorist attack orchestrated by the Palestinian group, “Black September,” which ended with the deaths of eleven members of the Israeli team and one police officer from West Germany.

- MONTREAL 1976: 29 African countries would end up boycotting the 1976 Summer Olympics after the IOC refused to ban New Zealand from the Games. The problem arose from New Zealand’s rugby team touring South Africa, which was still governed by an apartheid regime at the time. As pointed out by The Atlantic, there was a widely observed, but crucially informal, international sporting boycott imposed against South Africa. African countries deemed that New Zealand had violated this agreement and thus called for their team to be tossed from the Olympic Games. When the IOC chose not to eject the New Zealand team, the 29 African nations chose to remove themselves from the Games instead. As a bonus, these Games were also impacted by the two China situation once more, with Chinese Taipei boycotting the Games after not being allowed to compete as “Republic of China.”

- MOSCOW 1980: The 1980 Summer Olympics were hampered by the holy grail of Olympic boycotts, which was led by the United States as retribution for the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. The number of countries involved in the boycott differ by source, but ultimately 67 countries that the IOC had expected to participate in the Games were absent from competition. Some countries allowed their athletes to participate, but had their athletes compete under the Olympic flag instead of their own. Interestingly, athletes from Afghanistan did end up participating in the 1980 Summer Olympics, despite the boycott effort reportedly being made due to the Soviet Union’s invasion of their country. The boycott would ultimately go on to become one of the more notable episodes and reminders of the Cold War.

- LOS ANGELES 1984: In a somewhat predictable turn of events, the Soviet Union led a boycott of 14 countries in revenge for the United States led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics. Notably, some communist countries chose to attend the 1984 Summer Olympics, namely Romania, Yugoslavia, and the People’s Republic of China. The 1984 Summer Olympics also saw the resolution of the China situation, with both the People’s Republic of China and Chinese Taipei sending delegations to the Games under those names.

- SEOUL 1988: The era of what seemed like endless Olympic boycotts was about to come to a close with one final boycott. North Korea, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Nicaragua would boycott the Games after South Korea was allowed to host the Games without sharing hosting duties with North Korea. This would be the last official boycott of the modern Olympic Games, although there will be one more entry on this list.

- TOKYO 2020: There was one country absent from the Olympic Games this summer. North Korea reportedly withdrew from the Games citing a fear of the Covid-19 pandemic. However, the IOC later decided to ban North Korea from Olympic affairs until the end of 2022. IOC President Thomas Bach claimed that the North Korean government and national Olympic committee was reassured over safety measures for the 2020 Summer Olympics. The vaccines offered to North Korean athletes through deals struck by the IOC were also refused. North Korea has a historically tense relationship with Japan, so it’s not out of the question that North Korea decided to informally boycott the Games, though the jury is out on how to classify this episode for now.

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