Olympics and Cold War

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Since its rebirth in 1896, the modern Olympic Games have strived to represent the highest ideals of sport as diplomacy—the power of friendly competition to transcend world politics. But the games have often been over-shadowed by conflict and controversy as nations and groups used the high-profile event to make political statements.

When the Soviet Union entered Helsinki Summer Games in 1952, the games took on political overtones that only increased as the Cold War heated up. For many, the games became an almost symbolic struggle between the socialist and capitalist systems. Nothing illustrates this better than the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York when the underdog men's hockey team face off against the highly favored Soviet Squad. After being badly beaten by the Soviets 10–3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition game, the U.S. team came back and beat the mighty Russians, going on to win the gold medal. The "Miracle on Ice" became much more than a game in America. It was a jolt of national pride and proof to many American's that a democratic society could produce better players than the athlete "factory" of the state-sponsored communist system.

In 1972, the Summer Games in Munich were over-shadowed by violence when Palestinian terrorists broke into the Olympic Village, killed two members of the Israeli delegation, and took nine others hostage. In the end, all nine athletes and one policeman were killed in what became the darkest hour in modern Olympic history. Although not directly tied to Cold War politics, Munich showed the world that the games could be dramatically highjacked by radical groups wanting to garner worldwide attention.

The use of sports as a Cold War weapon reached its pinnacle after the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, when President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Games. Despite heated debate inside the United States, Carter held his ground, citing the breach of international law and his determination to defend human rights around the globe. Some individual French and British athletes attended, but most Western athletes joined the boycott.

The 1980 boycott set the stage for the Soviet Union and its satellite states to hold their own boycott of the 1984 Los Angles Summer Games. North Korea was next,

proposing a boycott of the 1988 games in neighboring Seoul, but that boycott failed to attract major support.

By 1992, the entire Cold War context of the games had melted away with the demise of the Soviet Union and with German reunification. But the games that followed were not without controversy as competition to host the games intensified. Both potential host countries and the International Olympic Commitee itself became embroiled in scandals that called the objectivity of the process into question. But as the world looks to future games in a post September 11, 2001, world, it is the ghost of Munich and the specter of even more deadly terrorist acts that have the potential to overshadow the high ideals the Olympic Games were intended to represent.


Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. New York: Bantam, 1982.

Miller, David. Athens to Athens: The Official History of the Olympic Games and the IOC, 1894–2004. Edinburgh: Mainstream, 2003.

Michael Davis

See also:Art as Weapon.