Olympic history and the Cold War: Contentious new interpretation of the Soviet boycott of 1984

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Kristian Gerner
Department of History, Lund University


Philip A. D’Agati The Cold War and the 1984 Olympic Games: A Soviet-American Surrogate War 197 sidor, inb. Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2013 ISBN 978-1-137-33061-1

Philip A. D’Agati
The Cold War and the 1984 Olympic Games: A Soviet-American Surrogate War
197 sidor, inb.
Basingstoke, Hamps.: Palgrave Macmillan 2013
ISBN 978-1-137-33061-1

The Soviet boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984 was not primarily an act of retaliation of the US boycott of the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980. Rather, the boycott in 1984 was part of a wider story that began in 1970 (or for that matter in 1917, the year of the Russian October revolution). This is the thesis of Philip D’Agati. As he indicates in the title of his book, he argues that the Soviet boycott in 1984 was a prominent issue in the Cold War, and not a sideshow.

D’Agati notes that the political significance of the Olympic Games depends not only on the possibility for states to stand out as successful societies through the rest of the world’s appreciation of the victories of their athletes. It has also been politically important for states to win the competition for hosting the Games and get the chance to demonstrate the ability to be a superior organizer and give the impression of having a superior social system.  D’Agati holds that a third important method of politicizing has been to approach the issue of attending or not. Thus to boycott, or threaten to boycott specific Games became a means “to protest the domestic or international policies of other states in the Olympic Movement” (3).

The boycott issue and its political significance during the Cold War is the theme of the book. The author’s interest is not in the outcomes but in the motivations behind the two boycotts that are his main concern, i.e. the 1980 Moscow and the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games.

The author argues that for the Soviet Union the Cold War was not only about security policy and armaments. It was also about recognition as an equal to the United States and gaining due respect from the world community. The Afghanistan war was not the crucial factor behind the boycotts in 1980 and 1984, D’Agati argues, because “[t]ensions over Moscow and Los Angeles’s selections for the Olympics were a decade old when Soviet military personnel crossed into Afghanistan” (79). Consequently, the thrust of D’Agati’s endeavour is to try to demonstrate that the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games was not a tit-for-tat hot-headed action but the result of the Soviet understanding of how the Cold War would be best waged.

D’Agati conceptualizes sport as war “by other means”. He refers to the Prussian officer Claus von Clausewitz’s famous treatise On War (1832-34) and argues that “we find a necessary expansion of the concept of conflict to include war, sports, diplomacy, and other ‘competitions’ as the same in theoretically terms…” (165). He means that all the Olympic Games since the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki – when the Soviet Union took part for the first time – have been surrogate wars between the opposing political camps the Soviet Union and “the West.”

A more benign conceptualization than D’Agati’s bellicose choice would be to frame international politics concerning the Games as instances of public diplomacy and attempts to exert soft power. In this specific case, the Soviet concept of peaceful co-existence (mirnoe sosushchestvovanie) would be an adequate analytical tool. D’Agati’s findings can be interpreted as examples of Soviet public diplomacy under the aegis of peaceful coexistence. The gist of the notion of peaceful coexistence was that the Soviet Union would demonstrate that Soviet socialism was superior to capitalism and would defeat the latter by outperforming it in all vital societal fields, ranging from the economy, science and technology to culture and sport. The Soviet Union was founded on the Marxist-Leninist ideology and the concept of peaceful coexistence between the socialist and the capitalist system. The concept was adopted after the death of Stalin in 1953 and implied that victory would be attained without recourse to military confrontation with the capitalist super power the United States. In Soviet vocabulary the concept of the Cold War was not used.

He demonstrates that the Los Angeles Games epitomized the ultimate commercialization of the Olympic Games – their “Americanization”.

According to the logic of D’Agati’s analysis, by standing aloof in good company with its political allies (except Romania), the Soviet Union would accomplish that the Los Angeles Games became a half-baked performance: the capitalists would not make the socialist camp agree to play its game. The Los Angeles Games would not adumbrate the Moscow Games of 1980. The Soviet Union would book another success in the surrogate war. Did the outcome live up to the expectations?

D’Agati does not give a straight answer to the question of success or failure for the Soviet boycott. Admittedly, it is impossible to measure whether, in the eyes of the world, the Moscow Games stand out as “better” than the Los Angeles Games. The author does show that the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Games were exceptional in that it was a private capitalist enterprise and not the baby of neither the State of California nor the United States of America. He demonstrates that the Los Angeles Games epitomized the ultimate commercialization of the Olympic Games – their “Americanization”. In a way, the absence of the Soviet Union and some of its allies served to underline this dimension of the Games. In terms of the rules of the peaceful coexistence game, the outcome may be interpreted as a Soviet failure and as a capitalist success.

D’Agati’s analysis is marred by the fact that his knowledge of the Soviet system is poor. He does not show any understanding of the ideological parameters. When he presents his “timeline of events relevant to the 1984 boycott” he starts by stating “October 14, 1964 Leonid Brezhnev becomes Premier of the Soviet Union” (xix). He refers to the successive General Secretaries of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union Leonid Brezhnev (1964-1982), Yurii Andropov (1982-1984) and Konstantin Chernenko (1984-1985) as “Premiers.” However, the Soviet Premiers (the Chairmen of the Council of Ministers of the USSR) during these years were Alexei Kosygin (1964-1980) and Nikolai Tikhonov (1980-1985). When Nikita Khrushchev was removed from the posts of Party First Secretary and Premier in 1964, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union forbade any individual to hold the posts of First Secretary of the Party and of Chairman of the council of ministers concurrently.

The author refers to “elements in the Supreme Soviet” as putative boycott agents, thus obviously unaware both of the fact that “elements” did not have any say in Soviet decision-making and of the fact that the Supreme Soviet was a mere façade, whereas political power was located in the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. This shortcoming of concentrating on an ephemeral institution instead of focussing on the decision-making centre weakens D’Agati’s analysis of the motivations behind the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles games in 1984.

D’Agati’s presentation of the international context of Soviet politics is flawed. He misrepresents the background of the Soviet decision to take part in the 1952 Summer Games by arguing that these games “went to Helsinki, Finland, which was occupied and annexed by the Soviet Union” (44). Finland was neither occupied nor annexed by the Soviet Union. Actually, the president of Finland Juho Kusti Paasikivi managed to have Stalin agree to accept the Finnish and not the Soviet formulation of the nature of the relation in the Pact of Friendship and Assistance between the two states in 1948. Finland remained a sovereign state.

However, the obvious conclusion is not spelled out by the author because he does not pay attention to the rules of the Soviet peaceful co-existence game.

The author’s presentation of Europe and European international relations during the Cold War is also somewhat misleading. He uses the term “the West” to denote an actor: “The West and the East had carved up Europe after World War II and left a map full of countries that were satellites of either the Soviet Union or the West” (66). Arguably, the Warsaw Pact states may be designated “satellites” of the Soviet Union, but “the West?” Were the UK and France satellites of themselves? And whose “satellites” were the neutral states Austria, Finland, Sweden and Switzerland?

The author’s characterisation of political regimes is not always appropriate. Although he observes correctly that the Soviet Union argued for Barcelona as the proper location for the Summer Games in 1936 because it supported the Popular Front government in Spain, he maintains that “the Soviet Union backed the populist government” (61). The Popular Front, the government of the Republic of Spain, was certainly not “populist” but a leftist grouping that consisted of Communists, Anarchists, Socialists and Republicans. This was the ideological reason behind the Soviet option.

D’Agati can demonstrate that it was more to the Soviet boycott in 1984 than mere retaliation. He makes the argument credible that “Soviet policy on the boycott was highly complex and exhibited multiple layers [….] and that all layers of this policy relate to the Soviet Union’s desire to outpace the American system through surrogate wars” (163). However, the obvious conclusion is not spelled out by the author because he does not pay attention to the rules of the Soviet peaceful co-existence game. The obvious conclusion is that the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984 was the hapless gesture of a crumbling political system that had lost belief in its ideological weapon. The boycott became a walk over victory for capitalism.

Whereas D’Agati shows that the Soviet attack on Afghanistan in 1979 and the US boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 were not sufficient reasons behind the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984, it remains likely that the US boycott in 1980 was a necessary prerequisite for the Soviet boycott in 1984. D’Agati does not demonstrate that a Soviet boycott would have remained an issue if the US boycott had not occurred.

The Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games did not spoil the capitalist showcase. The Soviet weapon of the soft power of public diplomacy under the aegis of peaceful coexistence had become so blunt that it was of no avail. The Soviet failure to wreck the extreme capitalist Summer Games in 1984 signalled the imminent defeat of the Soviet Union in the Cold War – a peaceful defeat. The subsequent Soviet attempt under Gorbachev to emulate the capitalist system by ways of glasnost, perestroika and new thinking revealed the fragility of the Communist Soviet society and spelled its fate. Thus the unsuccessful Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Games signalled the beginning of the end of the Soviet system.

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2014

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