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Making History, Marking History: Tokyo 2020 Becomes The First Games Postponed for Health Reasons

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

In June 1894, thousands rose to their feet in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne and cheered in support of resurrecting an ancient sporting competition. Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the man behind the modern Olympic Games, proposed a quadrennial event that would promote physical fitness and cultural internationalism, and the first event was held in Athens in 1896. Since their Greek rebirth, the Olympics have only been canceled three times (1916, 1940, and 1944). Students of history should recognize a pattern with these dates—they correspond with the First and Second World Wars. The cultural nationalism paired with militarism that fueled the global wars may have temporarily suspended the cosmopolitan competition, but the 1920 Antwerp and 1948 London games proved the resiliency of the movement.

When the one-year postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games was announced in March over concerns about the novel coronavirus, I was not shocked. I was relieved that they were not canceled outright. There are always those athletes who see this permutation of the games as their last hurrah while another upstart is ready to claim his or her glory in their first go around. A lot of anxiety and uncertainty was put to bed by the IOC’s decision, and fortunately the Japanese hosts will not lose out on the ability to hold the event. Still, postponement puts pressure on athletes who rely on their governments and sponsors for funding and whose sports require training at public facilities, many of which are shuttered for safety. Likewise, it may a delayed graduation for certain collegiate athletes in order to keep access to coaches and facilities. Fortunately, Tokyo 2021 has the ability to showcase the resilience of the modern Olympics in the same way the post-war games did in 1920 and 1948, and there hasn't been a large-scale wave of retirements so athletes remain determined.

For now, it seems as if the athletes preparing for the Tokyo 2020 games will still have their chance, albeit a little later than they may have hoped. This decision pales in comparison to the 1980-1984 tit-for-tat boycotts. Right before the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and this resulted in three months of Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and President Jimmy Carter threatening an Olympic boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics if there was no withdrawal. Political tensions ran high with the Soviet delegation arriving on foreign soil, and it was against this backdrop that the Miracle on Ice happened on February 22, 1980. The Soviet hockey team was up initially, but they spent the last 10 minutes of the storied match desperately firing at the American goal until the puck was cleared in the last 10 seconds. The score stayed at 4-3 as the buzzer sounded. American jubilation was a stark contrast to the embarrassing Soviet defeat by a team that was so good it was absolutely infamous. Less than a month later, President Carter announced the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in a move that stunned the host country as well as our own athletes. This was not the first Olympic boycott nor the first time that Soviet invasions led to countries boycotting the games. Instead, the first boycott was over allowing the Soviets, who recently invaded Hungary, to participate in the Melbourne 1956 Games.

Nevertheless, the 1980 boycott stung like a slap in the face. The Moscow games, which took place between July 19 and August 3, were important geopolitically because they were the first Olympics to be held in an Eastern European and socialist country. Because sixty-six nations boycotted (including Iran but out of Islamic solidarity with Afghanistan rather than from American pressure), aquatic and athletic sports were really hit hard in terms of competition level. Likewise, the American absence made basketball less thrilling, and equestrian sports were diminished because Britain’s Princess Anne supported the boycott. Although some American athletes begged to compete under the Olympic banner so they could still participate, President Carter notoriously issued a passport ban, which prevented their attendance. For some of these athletes, the boycott was the end of their careers while others would make it to 1984 and still not enjoy a full-fledged competition because of Soviet retaliation.

On May 8th, 1984, the Soviet Union announced it would boycott the Los Angeles Olympics. Despite the fact that this was in obvious retaliation for President Carter’s decision in 1980, the Soviets offered three interesting reasons for their proposed absence. First, they were concerned about security and safety in such a dirty and crime-ridden city as Los Angeles! The city was quite a contrast to Moscow and I love showing my students juxtaposed images of the two to get their reactions, but obviously this was designed as a diplomatic clap-back over 1980. What better way to do so than by calling the host city dirty and unsafe? Likewise, the Soviets, who were in a seemingly constant state of leadership flux, were aware of the damning rhetoric espoused by President Reagan as well as the bellicose cultural turn from Hollywood. Whether it was Rambo or a group of Colorado high-schoolers in Red Dawn, the Soviets were the baddies and had to suffer. This did not make for a warm invitation.

Finally, their third complaint was that Americans were profiting off the games, and like this has some merit. They decried Los Angeles organizers for product placements and corporate advertisements within Olympic venues as well as the selling of usage rights to the Olympic logo for corporations, who they designated as “Official Olympic Sponsors.” The Soviets lobbied complaints with the IOC, but these were the first Olympics, or McOlympics if you wish, that made a profit. This model would be replicated in all subsequent Olympics except for the 1984 Winter Olympics. (Those games were the first Winter games held in a socialist host city—Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.)

Despite the boycott, Soviet athletes still participated in an international sporting event that summer alongside some American athletes. We know from the Soviet archives that the decision to boycott the Los Angeles games was not finalized until March 1984. This makes planning and hosting a multinational alternative competition by July all the more impressive because that is exactly what the Soviets and their ideological companions did. Following IOC guidelines, the Soviet-organized “Friendship Games” ran from July 2nd through September 18th, 1984 with a two-week intermission for athletes who wanted to compete in Los Angeles too. Twenty-two Olympic sports plus tennis and table tennis were contested at venues spread throughout the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, North Korea, Mongolia, and Cuba. More than fifty nations, including the United States, sent around 4,500 athletes to these games. By the end of both events, sixty Friendship Games winners outperformed Olympic medalist results from Los Angeles. If 1980 was a bad year for Soviet sports internationally, then 1984 was a resurgence for their athletes and for Soviet organizing because they quickly put on a multinational and highly-competitive sporting event that rivaled one of the most profit-driven games in Olympic history.

As for Tokyo 2021, hopefully, athletes will be able to resume training soon and we can look forward to cheering for them next summer!

I hope you enjoyed this little cultural history vignette. The reciprocal Olympic Boycotts along with Cold War films feature in my Cultural Cold War course. If you haven’t done so yet, take a moment to look over my course descriptions to see more of my research and teaching interests. Thanks!

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