As some countries debate possible boycotts of this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing to express concern over violence in Tibet, RFE/RL Azerbaijani Service Director Kenan Aliyev speaks with Nelson Ledsky, the man who oversaw the United States’ efforts to encourage other states to boycott the 1980 Moscow Games.
RFE/RL: What was your position at the time of the boycott? You were working in the [U.S. President Jimmy] Carter administration…
Nelson Ledsky: I was the director in the State Department of the Olympic boycott office, an office which was set up at the beginning of 1980 to encourage countries to boycott the Moscow Olympics because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Was Afghanistan the only reason?
Ledsky: It was the primary reason. The United States in 1980 lacked means of properly responding or responding in any meaningful way to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And one of the instruments that the White House chose was to join with other interested countries who opposed the Afghan invasion by boycotting the Olympics, which had been awarded to Moscow well in advance of 1980. The Olympics, though, were to take place in 1980, and this was deemed a useful response, an embarrassment to the Russians, and a useful response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
RFE/RL: Can you tell us how the decision was made, and who the major players were?
Ledsky: The major players in making the decision to try to boycott the Olympics were the British, the Canadians, and the Americans. The three governments reached that agreement in January of 1980. It is true that the British and Canadians eventually did not join in that boycott, but they were among the original advocates of the boycott. The boycott was joined by some 60 to 70 countries, including China, including Saudi Arabia, including most of the Muslim world, which resented the Soviet attempt to take over Afghanistan. The joiners of the boycott were many Third-world countries as well as some of the countries of Europe and Latin America.
RFE/RL: Were there commercial interests lobbying strongly for the U.S. to participate?
Ledsky: Yes, there were commercial interests who favored American participation. One such commercial enterprise was the National Broadcasting Company, which had paid the Russians some $75 million to broadcast the Moscow Olympics — and they were anxious to keep broadcasting of course, they had paid money for it, but in the end they were persuaded by the U.S. government not to broadcast, and most American commercial enterprises that wanted to participate also did not participate.
RFE/RL: You say China was also boycotting the Moscow Games…
Ledsky: Looking back to 1980, it is ironic that those who participated in the 1980 boycott subsequently changed their mind. We were very resentful when the Russians boycotted the Olympics in the 80s in the United States, and you can understand that the Chinese — having won the Games for themselves for 2004 — would be upset at the thought that people would boycott the Beijing Games. But there is talk of it all over the international community.
RFE/RL: Do you think the 1980 boycott was a success?
Ledsky: Well, I don’t know [if it was] a success. It was a major embarrassment to the Russians. The Russians have never forgotten it. The Russians were very angry that this boycott was organized — or the attempted boycott was organized. And I think it was a serious blow to the Russians and to the prestige of the Olympic games in 1980. They suffered a lot of financial losses and they were deeply embarrassed that people did not come. And I think that in 2008, the idea of a boycott because of what is going on in Tibet, because of how the Chinese have behaved on human rights issues, has a certain appeal. I mean, I’m not in a position where I would say it was a good thing to do or a bad thing to do, but I respect those, like the French, who are beginning to talk about the inability to participate fully if the Chinese do not stop their human-rights violations.
RFE/RL: So you think it could be a serious option to get China to improve its human-rights record?
Ledsky: It is not an idle threat. I have no idea what the U.S. government is thinking about — or what other governments are thinking about, but the Tibetan situation is an interesting case where there is not a whole lot that the Western world or the Eastern world can do in Tibet. But they can send a signal through the Olympics. Now I know the Olympics movement [and] the Olympics committees of the various countries would be strongly opposed to such a move, and, as I say, I am only responding to your questions and am not raising the possibility myself.
RFE/RL: If you were asked to head [a] committee to boycott the Chinese Olympics, would you do it?
Ledsky: I would be tempted to. I mean, as a matter of fact, I think the effort in 1980 was a necessary effort, it was a useful effort, and it did have consequences on Russian behavior and their purchase to Afghanistan. So it may be the only tool that the Western world can apply in situations like Burma or Tibet — but it’s not without its effect.
RFE/RL: How big was the office you oversaw, the boycott committee?
Ledsky: We had three or four people working in the office in the State Department. And we had a good liason with other countries who were participating in the boycott. I remember a series of international meetings that we attended, and it is ironic that the Chinese at the time were very supportive of the boycott.
RFE/RL: What was the Chinese’ reason for boycotting the Moscow Games?
Ledsky: Well, I think they also objected to the invasion of Afghanistan; their policy at that moment was anti-Soviet. And the Chinese did go around Africa and Asia urging people to participate in the boycott.
Sports And Politics
RFE/RL: Do you think mixing sports and politics is a good idea?
Ledsky: In theory, of course, politics and sport should be separate. In practice, there is politics in the Olympics. There is always politics in the Olympics — the awarding of the games, the running of the games. These are both sports events but they are also political events.
RFE/RL: Was there any moment where you felt it was the wrong decision to boycott the Olympics? Did you have interaction with the Russians?
Ledsky: Yes, we had a conversation with the Russians. I personally never thought it was the right thing to do in 1980 — I’m not saying it’s the right thing to do in 2008 — I’m not an advocate of it. But it is a tool, in situations where there are very few tools to respond to a human-rights or political situation.
RFE/RL: Were there any interesting moments during your work in preparing for the boycott? And how long did the process last?
Ledsky: It lasted almost a year. There were all sorts of curious incidents. The Chinese participating in the Olympics was one strange event. The other was Romania under Ceaucescu participating in boycotting. We had a lot of funny events. We had Muhammad Ali — the famous boxer, the world champion — first signing up with President [Carter] to advocate a boycott, and then — at the last moment on a trip to Africa and Asia — he changed his mind and was convinced by the Nigerians not to boycott. So, yes, there was a series of comic, semi-comic, semi-tragic events connected with the boycott. And that’s why I’m not an advocate of it; I’m just responding to your questions about the past.
RFE/RL: Did you receive any complaints from U.S. athletes?
Ledsky: [There were] many American athletes who resented the decision of the U.S. Olympic committee to go along with the U.S. government in boycotting the Olympics. There was a lot of mail. There were a lot of angry meetings, and I remember a few of those meetings where we had a hard time explaining to athletes who had spent years getting ready for the Olympics why they were being asked by their government not to participate. So there were some very unpleasant letters, some unpleasant meetings, but the U.S. government, at least in 1980 under President Carter, held its ground. And the U.S. Olympic Committee did not send a team to Moscow.
RFE/RL: Were you surprised when the Soviets decided to boycott the Los Angeles Olympics [in 1984]? Which boycott was more effective?
Ledsky: Well, the boycott of Los Angeles was not effective. Not only did the games go on, but the games generated income for the organizers. The Moscow [Olympic] games went on — they took place — but there was very little international participation, and the Russians lost a great deal of money and a great deal of prestige.