The 1980 Olympics was famously boycotted by the US and a sixty five other countries. However it's not clear to me how the US government was able to prevent their athletes from participating, given that the US is a democracy and doesn't have direct control over neither the US Olympic Committee nor any individual athletes.

So how did the US government manage to make the boycott a success? Was there a law that banned participation in the Olympics?

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    What research have you done? What is the relationship between the US Olympic committee and the US Government?
    – MCW
    Jun 21, 2018 at 18:54
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    @MarkC.Wallace formally speaking the Olympic committee is not under the direct control of Congress Jun 21, 2018 at 20:03
  • @MarkC.Wallace added my source Jun 21, 2018 at 20:31
  • @MarkC.Wallace if I understand correctly the USOC has independent board members Jun 22, 2018 at 0:28
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    What do you think would happen if an athlete just decided, on their own, to show up at the Olympics and say they want to compete? @TafT The USSR could have countered that with allowing them in, right? There's no rule that says a country has to require a passport, and the US can't prohibit people from leaving the country. Jun 22, 2018 at 15:00

2 Answers 2


Enforce is the wrong word to use here, because while the idea may have began with the US government, formally speaking the decision to participate or not rested with each National Olympic Committee. The US, and other Western governments in general, simply persuaded (pressured) their respective NOCs into supporting their foreign policy.

Thus the USOC was addressed by Vice-President Mondale on behalf of President Carter, in his capacity as honorary President of the USOC, at its meeting on 12 April, 1980, when by a vote of 1,604 to 797 the decision was taken not to participate in the games.

Siekmann, R. C. R. "The Boycott of the 1980 Olympic games and Détente." Essays on Human Rights in the Helsinki Process. TMC Asser Instituut, The Hague Google Scholar (1985).

USOC [had] decided not to participate because the President of the United States had declared that the national security of the country was being threatened by international events.

Siekmann, Robert CR. "International sports boycotts: sport, law and politics." Introduction to International and European Sports Law. TMC Asser Press, 2012. 379-419.

That might sound incredible today (after Iraq), but in the context of the Cold War, national security (especially where Russians were involved) was widely perceived to be very compelling reason.

Therefore, the US government did not "enforce" a boycott - the International Olympic Committee did, since (as the Wikipedia page OP linked noted) it would not admit non-NOC sanctioned athletes. Because the USOC was persuaded to agree to a boycott, that excluded US athletes.

Other athletes, sanctioned by their NOC, actually did show up at the Games despite their government's official opposition - including from Puerto Rico, demonstrating that the US government could propose and influence, but did not actually enforce a boycott.

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    According to the wiki page linked in the question, the idea technically began with Andrei Sakharov, not the US. (This doesn't affect the point being made here, of course).
    – T.E.D.
    Jun 21, 2018 at 20:03
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    Could you please explain the Iraq mention, for those of us how do not follow. Thanks! Jun 21, 2018 at 23:28
  • Could you link to your two sources? I found the first under DOI; is that the same? Jun 21, 2018 at 23:35
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    @AndrewSavinykh see en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iraq_and_weapons_of_mass_destruction. TL;DR US and UK politicians lied about Iraq having WMDs. And neither Bush nor Blair suffered any consequences over their lies. Jun 22, 2018 at 0:31
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    Speaking from my memories of the time (I was very interested in the boycott, even if I was young), the idea of the boycott had also garnered much public support. Had the USOC not honored the President's request, it would've been a public relations debacle.
    – Deacon
    Jun 22, 2018 at 12:57

According to these notes from an International Olympic Committee(IOC) executive meeting, it seems the United States Olympic Committee(USOC) agreed to the boycott mostly on their own due to safety concerns:

After the April 24 session, USOC Exec Dir. Miller said that the USOC explained to the IOC/EC that it had taken its decision after obtaining all information possible. He said there was no question of a saction[sic] and the IOC/EC had not criticized them. USOC Pres. Kane emphasized that the IOC recognized the USOC's efforts to resist political pressure but that the USOC could not have decided otherwise when it came to a question of security. Kane added that if there were to be a spectacular change in the international situation, the USOC could change its stand and send a team to Moscow.

It seems that the IOC acknowledged the USOC's attempts to resist political pressure, which implies that there was at least some pressure by the government to stop the American team from participating.

However, the ultimate reason appears to be security. This was a time when the two countries were very hostile to eachother, so a large number of Americans traveling to Moscow wasn't considered the safest thing to do. The USOC also claims that if the situation de-escalated prior to the games, then the USOC would have changed its stance and sent a team, further indicating it was their decision and not the government's.

The other nations probably had similar reasons, though for many smaller nations political pressure was more likely a factor than safety.

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    "not the safest thing" Why? Was that a real concern or an excuse? If real, did they expect a war being started during he games, a hostage situation, that the delegates/athletes would contribute to escalation? Might have been the ultimate reason given, but sounds a bit bogus to me. Jun 21, 2018 at 19:58
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    In a war between nuclear powers in 1980, anyone in the United States or the Soviet Union would have been dead anyway. It would have been pointless to plan for one, unless it’s to build a bunker in the mountains or move to a neutral country.
    – Davislor
    Jun 21, 2018 at 23:35
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    However, remember what happened to the Israeli athletes in Munich. In 1980, that was still fresh in everyone’s minds.
    – Davislor
    Jun 21, 2018 at 23:36
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    The USOC feared Soviet (Russian) ultra-nationalist groups? In Moscow? Interesting, to say the least. Jun 21, 2018 at 23:44
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    @LangLangC when you can't find a rational argument use security as your excuse :) It's an age old tactic. Jun 22, 2018 at 16:04

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