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Boycotts have many virtues. They impose financial and social penalties for official behavior that cannot otherwise be changed. Boycotts can not only be successful, they can be turning points in history. Without a doubt, the most important American boycott of the 20th century was initiated by Mrs. Rosa Parks, who, as the story goes, decided on December 1, 1955, that she had had enough of Montgomery, Alabama’s discriminatory practices. Her arrest on a city bus launched a 381-day boycott of that city’s public transit that ended in its desegregation.
Of course, this was not a random act. Mrs. Parks knew what she was doing, and she had been recruited to do it. She had been an NAACP member since 1943, and she was arrested within months of returning from a seminar at the Highlander Folk School (now the Highlander Research and Education Center) in Tennessee.
Other carefully planned and consequential boycotts over the years have also successfully advanced human rights. The Delano grape boycott, which lasted from 1965 to 1970, supported the right of farm workers to organize. Filipino workers, joined by both Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez and the unions they represented, initiated a national boycott, not just to pressure California agribusiness but to teach the American public that, regardless of where they were eating grapes, their consumer choices affected the lives of farm workers in California.
But what about Olympic boycotts? While the history of rights-focused consumer boycotts in the United States goes back to the American revolution, using the Olympic Games as a political tool is largely a post WWII concept. It is one not confined to the United States—and they have broader, and generally less achievable, goals.
For example, several national Olympic committees kept their athletes home from the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon announced they would not participate in the Games in response to Israel, Britain and France invading Egypt after that country nationalized the Suez Canal. That same year, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland withdrew their athletes to protest the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. And barely two weeks before the Opening Ceremony, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) chose to keep its athletes at home because Taiwan, officially referred to as the Republic of China, had entered those Games. The PRC would not return to Olympic competition with a full team until 1984.
What were the outcomes of these political problems? Egypt still controls the Suez Canal. The Soviets left Hungary in 1990. The so-called “two Chinas” problem was settled in 1979 with an agreement that the National Olympic Committee of Taiwan would be called Chinese Taipei.
Yet, it would be hard to point to any impact these boycotts had on the foreign policy questions they sought to highlight.
But what was the outcome for the athletes whose nations withdrew them from competition? No one knows their names. No one was thrilled to their exploits as they tested themselves against the rest of the world, and none of them experienced living in an Olympic Village, an international experience which promotes peace.
The 1976 Montreal Olympic Games, in which I competed as a rower, was enmeshed in another political problem: the growing pressure to end apartheid in South Africa by boycotting all athletic competition with that nation. South Africa had been banned after the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games with a United Nations declaration that the apartheid system of government was a crime against humanity.
But a boycott can have a long reach, affecting even those who respect it. When my team arrived at the entrance to the Olympic Village in 1976, I noticed athletes sitting around, but not looking as though they were preparing for the most important competition of their lives. I do not remember which country they represented, but I learned that they were leaving. They explained that their National Olympic Committee and others from the African Continent were leaving because, prior to the Olympic Games, New Zealand had played a rugby match with South Africa.
As I later learned, the Organization for African Unity, which was not a sports organization but a political alliance, had decided to take a stand about the New Zealand match. My family had discussed the evils of apartheid, very similar to Jim Crow laws in the United States. Yet, I was surprised that an event not even played at the Olympic Games would prevent those who had respected the boycott from playing each other.
The apartheid system in South Africa continued for another 15 years: South Africa was re-admitted to the Olympic family in 1992.
But that team missed a unique experience to be part of a truly international community. I found that living in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Village was a transformational experience. People of both sexes, and of every size, shape, skin tone, were living there. We knew that there were not enough of the precious Olympic medals to go around. But we were all there because we had won the right to represent our nation.
We respected one another. I believed that if we could do this over a four-week period, then we could do it forever.
When I returned to Philadelphia, I had one more year of law school: I had made it through the first two while training for the 1976 Olympic Games. After that, I would be moving into the world as an attorney. I had other goals: but I had not reached the goal of being an Olympic Gold medalist.
I decided to dedicate myself to four more years of training pain, focusing on a singular goal, and finding a way to pay for it. I promised myself that the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow would be it: I would then get on with my life as a lawyer and eventually find my way to the Supremes (and I do not mean the singing group.)
In the fall of 1979, I left my practice at the Juvenile Law Center of Philadelphia, a job I truly loved, and moved to Princeton University so I could train for a final year with a pair partner (an event with two sweep rowers) who was pursuing her master’s in engineering. This had the added benefit of training with the head coach for the 1980 Olympic Rowing Team, also the head women’s coach at Princeton.
I was one of thousands of Americans who had made life and career altering decisions in pursuit of representing the United States of America at the 1980 Olympic Games—entirely self-funded.
Then, in 1979, the impossible happened. I was at a birthday party when I looked at a TV and saw President Carter announce that unless the Soviet Union left the border of Afghanistan, the United States would not send spectators or athletes to the Moscow Games.
I immediately thought: we would not what? Who is “we?” And where were “we” when I was freezing parts of my anatomy off training all winter in Princeton?
Shortly after, I shared those thoughts with the media in an uproar about the proposed boycott. I had testified before Congress in support of the Senator Ted Stevens Amateur and Olympic Sports Act of 1978. I was a member of the Administrative Committee, which was essentially the Executive Committee of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), and I insisted that the decision was solely for the athletes’ to make. I stayed with that philosophy while speaking, lobbying, and doing my best to ensure that those of us who had made the investment would be able to make the decision.
Finally, I sued the USOC. I lost.
I do not enjoy admitting failure, and in this case, justice was certainly not done. As a result of speaking up, testifying before Congress, and writing editorials, I received a great deal of hate mail and death threats. I was called unpatriotic. And despite my travel to and from Washington D.C., my nights spent communicating with rowers around the world, and pursuing a lawsuit, I was able to earn a spot on the 1980 US Olympic Rowing Team. I remain grateful to Levi Strauss who provided our uniforms, and to Patty La Belle, who entertained us in a concert.
But we were literally all dressed up with no place to go. And the result of the boycott? The Soviet Union did indeed invade Afghanistan, launching over four decades of conflict in that country. Despite the fact that we committed to representing the United States, our nation does not know us as Olympians. We never tested ourselves against the world. We have no memories, and we are forever the team with no result. We are the 1980 United States Olympic Team.
To this day, my friends ask: Why it is so hard for me to let go? I have since had the privilege of working at all levels of the Olympic Movement and have achieved much that I am proud of.
Now, 41 years later, as I hear about a potential boycott of the Beijing Olympics in 2022, I return to that unrelenting feeling of loss. There were some 500 athletes on the 1980 United States Team. For 219 of us, that year was their one chance to compete in an Olympic Games. Our team was composed of private citizens who had found a way to finance their dreams. Not one penny of public money — federal, state, or local — supported us as we trained. Before corporate sponsorships or financial backing were permitted, each of us had to make our own way.
At the inaugural USOC Olympic Assembly (now the USOPC) in April 2005, I understood why the 1980 boycott, a quarter century in the past, was still so painful. The program began with a video presentation of scenes from the 2004 Athens Games. The athletes’ smiles, and their wondrous show of mutual respect and fair play, delighted the audience. Later, another video, of the 1980 Olympic Winter Games, allowed me to experience a familiar, and overwhelming, rush of emotion and pride as I watched the United States hockey team win the “Miracle on Ice.” These were my contemporaries. After all, my teammates and I, who had prepared for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games, were to have been their “twins.”
But we had been erased from history. There were no videos, no pictures, no medal ceremonies featuring us. We would always be members of an Olympic team, and never Olympians, because we did not compete.
And what was the result of that boycott, other than crushing our Olympic dreams and wiping us from the history books? Not only did the Soviet Union (which no longer exists), invade Afghanistan, they decided to pay back the favor by boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. And as you read this, in the 21st year of the 21st century, our nation is scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan.
Today, what do Olympic boycotts achieve? It is abundantly clear that they accomplish one thing and one thing only: they hurt athletes. Yes, should the United States decide to boycott, the International Olympic committee will allow eligible athletes to compete at Beijing, as many European and other nations did at Moscow, under the Olympic Flag.
Most prominently, however, Olympic boycotts rob athletes of an irreplaceable experience for political reasons that have no real effect on the issues at hand. They rob the world of ambassadors for mutual respect and fair play, many of whom will go on to play public roles that require engaging with those outside their nation’s borders.
In an ever-connected yet polarized world, where unity and togetherness are at a premium, Olympic boycotts, such as the one proposed for Beijing in 2022, do not serve any beneficial end. Therefore, let the Games continue as a meeting place of common ground, as a celebration of human excellence, and as inspiration for what people committed to each other could achieve if they united.
Anita L. DeFrantz is an Olympic medalist in rowing, First Vice President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), an attorney, and author.