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Olympic lore: Russia rules, OK? ~ the 1980 Moscow Games

July 9, 2012



Middle-distance dynamos: Coe and Ovett’s rivalry defined Moscow ’80 in more ways than one

Believe it or not, we’re less than three weeks away from the London Olympics now (a rather shocking realisation that for someone who lives in the South-East of England as I do; there’s been so much hype, it feels like we’ve been waiting for them forever) and now, yes, now this blog’s tribute to Summer Games past is entering its final stretch – the 1980s.

And the first Olympics of the ’80s was one that undeniably belonged in that era – a time when tensions between the United States and the USSR were hotting up once more, ironically shortly before the Cold War would begin to fizzle out. This reality would affect these particular Games in a way no previous Olympics had been by politics (even the Nazi Germany-hosted 1936 effort), yet they’d also prove a dramatic, exciting and unforgettable sporting spectacle for many different reasons. So here we go then – it may have been far from glastnost, but it was one that simply can’t be glossed over: say zdravstvujtye to Moscow 1980, folks…


The Magic

For many in the West,  the idea of a Summer Olympics in Moscow may not have been very appealing, but in the wake of Olga Korbut’s smiling face at Munich ’72 displaying a different, more open and positive side of the Soviet personality, clearly the Moscow Games could be an opportunity to showcase one of the world’s greatest and most fascinating cultures – if its organisers and the Soviet authorities would allow it. The powers-that-be had certainly put in the time and effort – in staging the Games, the USSR had spent a total 862.7 million rubles (of which it would only recoup 744.8 million rubles) and had spread the events across 28 different venues including the newly built Olympiysky stadium that housed an indoor stadium (boxing and the basketball final) and a swimming pool (swimming, diving and the modern pentathlon), as well as venues in modern day Ukraine (Kiev), Belarus (Minsk) and Estonia (Tallinn). There would also be a total 203 events held; more than ever before. Potentially, these Games could be the biggest and best Olympics ever. Potentially…



The Mascot

Perhaps the most memorable of all Olympic mascots, Misha (Миша) the bear‘s popularity isn’t exactly difficult to understand – he’s basically a cute brown teddy bear. Designed by children’s book illustrator Victor Chizhikov, Misha was chosen as mascot because obviously the bear is the animal most commonly associated with Russia. And methinks it’s only fair to point out the rather wonderful irony that the first Olympic mascot to achieve widespread commercial success (dolls and soft toys, TV cartoons and associated merchandise) was therefore, yes, a Soviet creation.


The Moment

Christmas Eve is always supposed to be a positive day, but an event occurred on December 24 1979 that would have a profound effect on the following year’s Summer Olympic Games. For it was on this day that the Soviet Union’s forces invaded Afghanistan, beginning a conflict that would drag on for an entire decade. And this war’s most immediate consequence for masses around the world came on January 20 1980 when US President Jimmy Carter – who like the vast majority of politicians not just in America but throughout the Western world was against the USSR attempting to spread Communism to the Middle East – issued the ultimatum that if the USSR wouldn’t withdraw from Afghanistan then the USA would boycott the Moscow Games. Of course, Soviet forces didn’t withdraw and the boycott went ahead, ensuring unquestionably one of the two strongest Olympic teams (the other one being the USSR itself) would be absent from every single sport at the Games.

The boycott didn’t end there, though. In total, 64 nations (most notably West Germany, Japan, China, Canada and Argentina) joined the States in sitting this one out, many of which would compete in that summer’s alternative Liberty Bell Classic athletics games held in Philadelphia. A further 16 nations (including the UK, France, Italy, Australia, Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Ireland) supported the boycott but did allow their athletes to compete – their gesture being that in the Opening Ceremony their athletes marched under the Olympic flag rather than their national flags, while at medal ceremonies the Olympic flag was raised in place of their flags and the Olympic Anthem was played instead of their national anthems for gold-winning performances (see middle video clip below).

Yet again, global politics – in this instance, the Cold War – had infected a Summer Olympic Games for right or wrong and in a way that was utterly unforgettable, just as it had in 1936, ’68 and ’72.


Pleasant surprises: Scot sprinter Allan Wells rocks the world (left) and the Zimbabwe women’s hockey team shocks the world by pulling off one of the great Olympic achievements (right)


The Main Men

Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett ~ were it not for the US-led boycott, the story of these two British middle-distance runners’ rivalry played out at these Games – arguably one of the greatest ever sporting rivalries – would surely be practically everyone’s abiding memory of Moscow ’80. Sebastian Coe was the best 800m runner in the world, while Steve Ovett was the best 1,500m runner in the world (indeed, at this distance and the non-Olympic mile distance he hadn’t lost a race in three years – that’s 45 races). Coe was handsome and well-spoken (he’d later become a Tory MP), while, by contrast, Ovett was seen as rather prickly and stand-offish. The mostly Tory-friendly British newspapers were therefore behind Coe, but – like all the media at large – also recognised Ovett’s equally brilliant talent.

And what happened when they met at these Olympics (only the second time they’d raced against each other in international competition) would be dramatic, climatic and surprising – in short, Coe won Ovett’s specialty event and Ovett won Coe’s. Getting, by his own admission, the tactics of the 800m final all wrong, Coe and the world watched Ovett run clear of him as the latter took the gold and the former the silver, but Coe got his revenge over Ovett in the 1,500m final by holding off the latter over the last few metres to win; Ovett actually ended third – after having claimed in a newspaper article he had a ’90 percent chance’ of winning the event (see bottom video clip for both races).

Both athletes enjoyed a successful next couple of years, but while Coe repeated his Moscow ’80 results at the 1984 Games, an unwell Ovett struggled in the final of both events and was subsequently taken to hospital. After this, their careers wound down and the rest of their lives were just as large contrasts as their athlete personas. Ovett left the UK for relative obscurity in Canada, while , as mentioned, Coe entered politics, became a multi-millionaire health club owner, received a title for his political and sporting efforts and is now overseeing the upcoming 2012 London Olympics.


The Main Women

The Zimbabwe women’s hockey team ~ having only found out they’d won a place at the Games 35 days before they began and thus only having chosen the team the weekend before the opening ceremony, and not discounting the facts that none of their players had prior playing experience on an artificial surface, none had properly trained together before the tournament and they’d only warmed up by playing a handful of friendly matches with Soviet club teams, the Zimbabweans upset all the odds by somehow winning the gold medal.



Mentioned in dispatches

  • Cuba managed a record-best performance at these Games, finishing a mightily impressive fourth in the Medal Table and clocking-up eight gold medals. Admittedly, this was mostly due to the boycott, as six of those golds came from boxing, a sport in which (like Cuba) the States is traditionally very strong. All the same, Cuba’s six gold, two silver and two bronze haul from the boxing equalled the best ever achieved in the sport – by the US in 1904’s St. Louis Games
  • Also due to the United States’ (and to a lesser extent West Germany’s) absence, European powers France and Italy won four times and three times as many gold medals, respectively, as they did at Montreal ’76. The UK too made hay while others were away, enjoying its best medals haul since Melbourne ’56, as did Ireland
  • The most high profile beneficiary of the boycott, British or otherwise, could be said to be Scottish sprinter Allan Wells, who in a photo-finish with Cuban favourite Silvio Leonard won gold in the 100m; both athletes recorded a time of 10.25 seconds (see top video clip). Wells was not only the first Briton to win the ‘blue ribband’ event of the Games since 1924, but also remains the last white man to do so. Not content with that triumph, however, Wells almost made it a double in the 200m, but with just 10m to go lost out to Italian Pietro Menna by 0.02 seconds and had to settle for silver
  • More notable British success came in the decathlon, which was won by the charismatic and oustanding Daley Thompson and, following on from David Wilkie’s win in the 200m Breaststroke four years before, memorably bald swimmer Duncan Goodhew became a household name by winning the 100m version of the event (see video clip above)
  • Also in the pool, eighteen-year-old Sharron Davies took the silver medal in the 400m Individual Medley behind East German Petra Schneider, who later admitted her victory was drug enhanced. Out of the pool, Davies quickly became a sex symbol and has enjoyed a successful media career, including appearing in the guise of ‘Amazon’ on ITV’s Gladiators (1992-2000)
  • As his compatriot John Curry had four years before at the Innsbruck Winter Games, at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics held in February 1980, Brit Robin Cousins triumphed in the Men’s Figure Skating Singles. Also like Curry, Cousins was voted the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year come 1980’s end, Sebastian Coe was second and Daley Thompson third
  • Again, with the absence of American competitors, the Soviet Union easily dominated the Medal Table, yet despite its unquestioned success across many events, it failed to win in football and men’s basketball, was utterly outclassed in sailing by East Germany and didn’t wipe the board in judo – all of which were sports for which it was the strong favourite


Brits of all right: Duncan Goodhew (top left) and Sharron Davies (bottom left) make a splash in the pool, as Robin Cousins appears on the cover of Radio Times magazine in Winter Olympics week (top right) and Daley Thompson clears the high jump as he goes for glory (bottom right)


The Memory

Although the absence of some competing nations (in particular the States and West Germany) clearly diminished these Games’ quality and diversity, on the upside it also gave them something of a unique feel and atmosphere – in addition to that provided by their being held in the USSR, of course. As mentioned, major nations such as the UK, Italy, France and Cuba benefitted greatly owing to others not being there to compete in some events, with the memory of the Coe-Ovett rivalry seeming to define these Olympics’ British success and inevitable lack of any American dominance. However, in the end, Moscow ’80 will always be recalled as the one that the States didn’t attend for disagreeably serious Cold War-related reasons. The next Games would inevitably be very different, given their host would be Los Angeles – surely they‘d not endure any sort of a boycott, would they…?


The Medal Table

Gold Silver Bronze
1 Soviet Union 80 69 46 195
2 East Germany 47 37 42 126
3 Bulgaria 8 16 17 41
4 Cuba 8 7 5 20
5 Italy 8 3 4 15
6 Hungary 7 10 15 32
7 Romania 7 6 13 25
8 France 6 5 3 14
9 Great Britain & NI 5 7 9 21
10 Poland 3 14 15 32




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