27 December, 2020
The opening ceremony
The opening ceremony

The Moscow 1980 Summer Olympic Games were the first to be staged behind the Iron Curtain in a socialist country. The Games were the first to be held in Eastern Europe, and remain the only Summer Olympics held there, as well as the first Olympic Games to be held in a Slavic language-speaking country. They were also the only Summer Olympic Games to be held in a communist country until 2008 in China.

The Games are also remembered for a boycott as part of a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. As a result, 67 eligible nations refrained from participating in the Games. Some explicitly cited the boycott as the reason, with others giving alternative explanations. Other nations left the decision about participation to the athletes themselves, with several participating under the Olympic flag or the flags of their NOCs.

As a result, Moscow 1980 was a bitter-sweet experience for many athletes under strong pressure to desist or even banned from participating. Although some who missed the Games managed to maintain their training and participate in the Olympic Games four years later in 1984, others who had trained since Montreal 1976 saw their hopes and dreams of repeating the experience dashed. Still others missed out on what was their only opportunity to go to an edition of the Summer Olympic Games.

The Games were attended by 5,179 athletes - 1,115 women and 4,064 men. Among the participating nations, Angola, Botswana, Cyprus, Jordan, Laos, Mozambique and the Seychelles made their first-ever appearance. There were some truly stunning performances in the-then Soviet capital, where athletes competed in 204 different events.

Lessons Learnt from Olympic Boycott

IOC President Thomas Bach explained how this experience affected him as an athlete. It was a defining moment in his career as an athlete representative and IOC Member. Bach, who won a gold in fencing at the Olympic Games Montreal 1976, represented West German athletes in the public debate over whether or not the country should join the boycott. In the end, they were one of the NOCs to stay away from the Moscow Games.

This US-led boycott reduced the number of participating nations at the Moscow Games to 80, the lowest number since 1956. Four years later, the Soviet Union led a revenge boycott at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984, which depleted the field in certain sports. President Bach recalled the two generations of athletes who lost out on their Olympic dreams due to these boycotts, and the impact of that experience on his own motivation, which still drives him today to give all the clean athletes of the world the chance to participate without any kind of discrimination in the Olympic Games, the only event to unite the world in peaceful competition.

The boycott of Moscow achieved nothing at all. And this has been admitted also by all the major actors, at least in Germany, who were there at the time, who already a couple of months later in conversations told me, “We made a mistake. This was not the right thing to do.” So you had, in fact, two generations of athletes losing their Olympic dream, having prepared for years for nothing. So what is a boycott for? It’s against all the Olympic spirit. It’s against all the values we have in sport and what we are standing for in sport.

The role of the Olympic Games is to unify the entire world in a peaceful competition, without any discrimination, be it racial, be it social, be it cultural, be it political. And this is what we are achieving. President Bach added: “Anybody who is thinking about a boycott should learn this lesson from history; a sports boycott serves nothing. It’s only hurting the athletes and it’s hurting the population of the country because they are losing the joy to share, the pride, and the success with their Olympic team. So, what is a boycott for? It’s against all the Olympic spirit. It’s against all the values we have in sport and what we stand for in sport.

The Games of the XXII Olympiad and commonly known as Moscow 1980 were held from July 19 to August 3, 1980 in Moscow, Soviet Union, in present-day Russia. Led by the United States, 66 countries boycotted the games entirely because of the Soviet–Afghan War. The Soviet Union emerged top in the overall medal tally winning 80 gold, 69 silver and 46 bronze medals. The East Germany came second with 47 gold, 37 silver and 42 bronze medals. The Soviet Union and East Germany dominated the scene winning 127 gold medals together out of 204 gold medals.

As a form of protest against the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, fifteen countries marched in the Opening Ceremony with the Olympic Flag instead of their national flags, and the Olympic Flag and Olympic Hymn were used at medal ceremonies when athletes from these countries won medals. Competitors from New Zealand, Portugal and Spain competed under the flags of their respective NOCs. Some of these teams that marched under flags other than their national flags were depleted by boycotts by individual athletes, while some athletes did not participate in the march.

The impact of the boycott was mixed, as some events such as swimming, track and field, boxing, basketball, diving, field hockey and equestrian sports were hit hard. Whilst competitors from 36 countries became Olympic medalists, sharing 204 gold, 204 silver and 223 bronze medals. It was perhaps the most skewed medal tally since 1904 Summer Olympic Games.

Memorable Attractions at Games

The Soviet gymnast Aleksandr Dityatin was the most successful athlete at the 1980 Summer Olympics. He won medals in every men’s gymnastics event – three gold, four silver and one bronze – becoming the first athlete to win eight medals at the same Olympic Games. As of 2020, he remains the only athlete to win a medal in each of the eight gymnastics events at one Olympics. His eight medals set the record for achieving the most medals of any type at a single Olympic Games in 1980.

Dityatin’s first Olympic success was at the 1976 in Montreal, where he won two silver medals: on the rings and in the team competition. At the 1980 Olympics, he won a record eight medals, where he won the all-around title and seven more medals, including two gold to add to his historic achievement of eight medals in one Olympic Games. He was also the first male gymnast to be awarded a perfect score of ten in an Olympic competition, a feat he accomplished in the long horse vault.

To add more to the impressiveness of his performance at the 1980 Olympics, not only did he medal in every event, which, of course, suggests an excellent standard of performance throughout the entire competition, but throughout his 24 performances (the maximum # of performances a male gymnast can have throughout an Olympics), he scored no lower than a 9.800 out of 10 throughout those 24 performances, and on 18 of those performances, his score was at least a 9.900.

Meanwhile on the track, Great Britain’s middle-distance runners Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe went head-to-head in what proved a memorable race. Ovett took the gold in 800m clocking 1:45.4 ahead of his compatriot, Sebastian Coe who won the silver medal with 1:45.9. Six days later, the tables were turned when Coe took the gold in 1500m. Ovett had won 45 straight 1,500m races since May 1977. In contrast, Coe had competed in only eight 1,500m races between 1976 and 1980. Coe won the race, holding off Ovett in the final lap, with a time of 3:38.4 and Ovett had to settle for the bronze medal clocking 3:39.0.

At the same time, super-heavyweight Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba became the first boxer to win the same division three times, and Gerd Wessig of East Germany became the first male high jumper to break the world record at the Olympic Games.

Records and Controversies

During the opening ceremony, Salyut 6 crew Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin sent their greetings to the Olympians and wished them happy starts in the live communication between the station and the Central Lenin Stadium.

There were 204 events – more than at any previous Olympics. 36 world records, 39 European records and 74 Olympic records were set at the Moscow 1980 games. In total, this was more than the records set at Montreal 1976. New Olympic records were set 241 times over the course of the competitions and world records were beaten 97 times.

The Games attracted five million spectators, an increase of 1.5 million from the Montreal Games. There were 1,245 referees from 78 countries. A series of commemorative coins was released in the USSR in 1977–1980 to commemorate the event. It consisted of five platinum coins, six gold coins, 28 silver coins and six copper-nickel coins.

A 1989 report by a committee of the Australian Senate claimed that “there is hardly a medal winner at the Moscow Games, certainly not a gold medal winner...who is not on one sort of drug or another: usually several kinds. The Moscow Games might well have been called the Chemists’ Games.” The first documented case of “blood doping” occurred at the 1980 Summer Olympics as a runner was transfused with two pints of blood before winning medals in 5000m and 10,000m.

Highlights in Athletics

In track-and-field, six world records, eighteen Olympic records and nine best results of the year were registered. In women’s track and field, events alone either a world or Olympic record was broken in almost every event. Ethiopian Miruts Yifter won 5,000m and 10,000m double in athletics, emulating Lasse Viren’s 1972 and 1976 performances. Aided by the absence of American opposition, Allan Wells beat Cuban Silvio Leonard to become the first Briton since 1924 to win the sprint dash of 100m.

Poland’s Władysław Kozakiewicz won the pole vault with a jump of 5.78 to become only the second to establish a world record in the event during an Olympics. The previous time had been at the Antwerp Olympics 1920. In women long jump for the first time ever in one competition the top three competitors cleared 7.0m. Waldemar Cierpinski of the East Germany won his second consecutive marathon gold. Barbel Wockel, also of the East Germany, winner of 200m in Montreal, became the first woman to retain the title.

Tatiana Kazankina of the Soviet Union retained the 1,500m title that she had won in Montreal. In the women’s pentathlon, Soviet Nadiya Tkachenko scored 5,083 points to become the first athlete to exceed 5,000 points during an Olympic competition, winning the gold medal. For the first time in the Olympic history, all eight competitors in men’s long jump final beat the mark of 8m whilst Lutz Dombrowski of the East Germany won the gold. Daley Thompson of Great Britain won the gold in the Decathlon. Soviet Dainis Kula won gold in the men’s javelin. He also had the best sum total of throws, showing his consistency.

In men’s triple jump, Soviet Viktor Saneyev, who won gold at Mexico, Munich and Montreal, won a silver. Yuriy Sedykh of Soviet Russia won gold in hammer with four of his throws breaking the world record of 80m. As in Montreal, the Soviets won gold, silver and bronze in this event. Evelin Jahl of East Germany won back to back gold medals in discus throw establishing a new Olympic record of 69.96 m having remained undefeated since Montreal. Cuba’s Maria Caridad Colon won the women’s javelin, setting a new Olympic record. Sara Simeoni of Italy won the women’s high jump, setting a new Olympic record.

Polish gold medalist in pole vault, Władysław Kozakiewicz showed an obscene bras d’honneur gesture in all four directions to the jeering Soviet public, causing an international scandal and almost losing his medal as a result. There were numerous incidents and accusations of Soviet officials using their authority to negate marks by opponents to the point that IAAF officials found the need to look over the officials’ shoulders to try to keep the events fair. There were also accusations of opening stadium gates to give Soviet athletes advantage, and causing other disturbances to opposing athletes.

Swimming and Gymnastics

Vladimir Salnikov of the Soviet Union won three gold medals in swimming. He became the first man in history to break the 15-minute barrier in the 1500m freestyle, swimming’s equivalent of breaking the four-minute mile. Salnikov also won gold in the 4x200m relay and the 400m freestyle. In the 400m freestyle, he set a new Olympic record which was just eleven-hundredths of a second outside his own world record. In Moscow sixteen swimmers finished in under four minutes and eight of them did not make the final.

East German women dominated the swimming events, winning nine of eleven individual titles, both the relays and setting 6 world records. They also won all three medals in six different races. In total they won 26 of the available 35 medals. As it was revealed later, their results were aided by the state-sponsored doping system. In swimming, 230 national, 22 Olympic and ten World records were set. The youngest male gold medalist of these Olympics was 17-year Hungarian backstroke swimmer Sandor Wladar.

In the team competition of Gymnastics, the USSR won the gold medal for the eighth consecutive time, continuing the “gold” series that started in 1952.

Basketball, Boxing, Canoeing, Cycling

Basketball was one of the hardest hit sports due to the boycott. Though replacements were found, five men’s teams including the defending Olympic Champions United States withdrew from the competition in addition to the US Women’s team. In the women’s competition, the host Soviet Union won the gold. In men’s competition Yugoslavia took home the gold.

Teofilo Stevenson of Cuba became the first boxer to win three consecutive Olympic titles in heavyweight, and indeed the only boxer to win the same event in three Games. Uladzimir Parfianovich of the Soviet Union won three gold medals in canoeing. Lothar Thoms of East Germany won the 1,000m individual pursuit cycling gold, breaking the world record by nearly four seconds. The 189-kilometer individual road race gold was won by Sergei Sukhoruchenkov of the Soviet Union. In cycling, world records were toppled 21 times.

Equestrian, Football, Hockey, Judo & Rowing

The oldest medalist at the Moscow Olympic Games was Petre Rosca from Romania in the dressage at 57 years 283 days in Equestrian. In Football, Czechoslovakia won the gold medal beating East Germany 1:0 in the final. In the women’s field hockey the gold medal was won by the Zimbabwe. None of their players had prior playing experience on an artificial surface. India won a record eighth title in men’s field hockey. In Japan’s absence, the Soviet Union won five medals in judo. East Germany dominated rowing, winning eleven of the fourteen titles.

Sailing, Volleyball, Water Polo, Weightlifting, Wrestling

In sailing, Soviet sailor Valentyn Mankin won a gold medal in “Star” class. He won Olympic champion titles in “Finn” and “Tempest” classes before, and remains the only sailor in Olympic history to win gold medals in three different classes. The prominent nation in both volleyball competitions was the Soviet Russia; its teams won both gold medals. Hungary won a bronze medal in water polo. This continued their run of always winning a medal in this event since 1928.

The standard of weightlifting was the highest in the history of the Olympics. There were eighteen senior world records, two junior world records, more than 100 Olympic records and 108 national records set. The oldest of weightlifting’s Olympic records – the snatch in the lightweight class set in 1964 – was bettered thirteen times. Soviet Yurik Vardanyan winning the gold became the first middleweight to total more than 400 kg. In Greco-Roman wrestling, Ferenc Kocsis of Hungary was declared the winner of the 163 pound class. In wrestling, the Soviet Union won 12 gold medals.

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)