Background to Boycott: Carter Presidency in Crisis
“Effective control over the conduct of foreign affairs is slipping away from Jimmy Carter, and that is sad to see,” wrote Theodore Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy, in a New York Times Op-Ed on Sept. 21, 1979. “The need is not for more belligerence in President Carter’s policy or more bombast in his speeches, not for a strong warning to Congress unmatched by action. What’s needed is presidential leadership.”
By then Carter had achieved impressive goals. He’d brokered the first effective Arab-Israeli peace treaty—the Camp David agreement between Egypt and Israel, which went into effect in April 1979. He wrapped up a treaty on the Panama Canal and restored the nation’s moral stature by giving human rights a place in the conduct of foreign policy. But events soon overtook his presidency.
Chronology of Setbacks
- On Feb. 14, 1979, Muslim extremists kidnapped Adolph “Spike” Dubs, the American ambassador to Afghanistan and took him to a hotel in Kabul, where he was killed in a gunfight between the kidnappers and Afghan police.
- In early October in 1979, the Syrian president, Hafez el Assad, was in Moscow, speaking to “the need for the Soviet Union’s participation in a Middle East settlement at all stages.” On Oct. 25, the Soviet Union signed a 20-year friendship treaty with South Yemen, in the Southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, thus opening the way for a Soviet naval base in the Yemeni port city of Aden. (South Yemen had been receiving Soviet military aid since 1967, when it won independence from Britain.)
- On Nov. 4, 1979, militant Shiite students organized by Ibrahim Asgharzadeh, then an engineering student, seized the American embassy in Teheran and took its personnel hostage to protest the Carter administration’s decision to let the Shah of Iran into the United States for medical treatment. George H.W. Bush, who was challenging Ronald Reagan for the Republican nomination for president, was talking about developing a “paramilitary plan” to free the hostages in Iran. Carter, unfortunately, listened. A dismal military rescue attempt in April 1980 ended in the death of eight American soldiers in the Iranian desert. The crisis, involving 52 American hostages, was to last 444 days, ending the day Ronald Reagan was inaugurated president on Jan. 20, 1981.
- On Dec. 27, 1979, Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan.
In a press conference on Dec. 28, 1979, Carter said put the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in these terms: “Such gross interference in the internal affairs of Afghanistan is in blatant violation of accepted international rules of behavior. [...] The Soviet action is a major matter of concern to the entire international community.”
That would be almost as far as he would go, until grumbles from across the Atlantic began to call for more—though not much more.
How the Boycott of the Olympics Came to Be
Neville Trotter, an extreme right-wing conservative in Britain’s Parliament, asked Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to lead a worldwide boycott of the Moscow Olympics.
“Another venue should be found,” he said, “and if necessary the games should be postponed for a year. This is the one lever we have to show outrage at this naked aggression by Russia. We should do all we can to reduce the Moscow Olympics to a shambles.”
In fact, Saudi Arabia was first to pull out, in protest over Soviet aggression on Islamic land. On Jan. 17, 1980, the Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports Club, funded and supported by Muhammad Ali, announced that its 32 member boxers and athletes—several of whom were favored to win medals—would boycott the games.
In his State of the Union message on Jan. 23, Carter announced the boycott: “I have notified the Olympic Committee that with Soviet invading forces in Afghanistan, neither the American people nor I will support sending an Olympic team to Moscow.” The next day, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 386-12 to support Carter’s call. Among those opposed to the boycott were Phil Gramm of Texas and John Conyers Jr. of Michigan.
What NBC Lost
NBC had paid $85 million for the rights to broadcast the games—including $61 million it paid to the Russians—and was planning on broadcasting 152.5 hours of coverage for American viewers. By January 1980, it had sold 98 percent of commercial spots set aside for the event, at $165,000 a minute (or $450,000 in 2008 dollars). The network was banking on a $25 million profit ($66 million in 2008 dollars).
The network didn’t quite have to forgo it all. NBC had also paid $4 million to Lloyds of London to buy insurance against such eventualities. It would make up close to 90% of the money it invested in the games.
The Boycotting Nations
In all, 61 nations boycotted the Moscow summer Olympics — but less than half the nations of the Middle East did. The nations that boycotted are as follows:
- Antigua and Barbuda
- Cayman Islands
- Central African Republic
- People's Republic of China 
- Côte d'Ivoire
- El Salvador
- West Germany
- Hong Kong
- South Korea
- Netherlands Antilles
- Papua New Guinea
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
- United States
- U.S. Virgin Islands