Of Note: The boycott led to hotel and ticket refunds totaling $1 million Canadian dollars. It especially affected several track and field events, where nations such as Kenya and Tanzania were frequent medal winners.
Host City: Moscow, Russia
Boycotting Countries: 65 countries, led by the United States
The Details: Protesting the December 27, 1979, Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, more than 60 nations refused to compete in the Moscow-held games. Led by the U.S. and President Jimmy Carter, the boycott included Canada, Israel, Japan, China and West Germany, as well as most Islamic nations. Afghani athletes, notably, competed in the Games. Some countries did not forbid athletes from competing as individuals under the Olympic flag, but American athletes attempting to compete faced losing their passports. A group of American athletes sued the U.S. Olympic Committee to participate but lost the case. The boycott resulted in just 80 countries competing in the Olympics, the fewest since 1956.
Of Note: Carter enlisted boxing star Muhammad Ali to campaign across Africa to recruit countries to join the boycott. However, Ali reversed course while on the tour, facing criticism for being a White House puppet. The boycott did little to end the Soviet-Afghan War, which raged on until 1989. And, with the U.S. and other powerhouses out of the competition, the Soviets won 195 medals, an Olympic record that still stands.
When World Events Disrupted the Olympics
American sports fans display a banner with the message ‘To Russia With Love! Having a Great Time, Wish You Were Here,’ in reference to the boycott of the Games by the Soviet Union and 13 other Eastern Bloc countries, inside the Memorial Coliseum during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Bob Thomas Sports Photography via Getty Images
Host City: Los Angeles, United States
Boycotting Countries: 14 countries, led by the Soviet Union
The Details: In retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of the Moscow Games four years earlier, 14 nations, led by the Soviet Union and including East Germany, boycotted the Los Angeles-held Olympics. Joined by most of the Eastern Bloc nations, the Soviets said they feared physical attacks and protests on American soil. “Chauvinistic sentiments and anti-Soviet hysteria are being whipped up in this country,” a government statement read.
Of Note: Despite the boycott,140 nations competed in the Games, an Olympic record. And with the Soviets out of the running, the U.S. easily won the medal count, including a record 83 gold medals. China, in its first Summer Games since 1952, scored 31 total medals. American track phenoms Carl Lewis and Joan Benoit, along with Mary Lou Retton, the first American gymnast to win the gold for all-around, became instant stars. And the Games were considered a huge financial success, with almost double the ticket sales of Montreal and earning the title as the most-seen event in TV history.
8 Astounding Moments in Women’s Olympic Gymnastics 1988
Host City: Seoul, South Korea
Boycotting Countries: Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua and North Korea
The Details: Angered over not being allowed to co-host the Games with South Korea, North Korea refused to attend the 1988 event in neighboring Seoul. The Soviet Union, meanwhile, accepted the IOC’s invitation to compete, along with China and Eastern Bloc nations, leaving just Cuba, Ethiopia and Nicaragua joining North Korea in the boycott. “To have the Olympics in Seoul would be like having them at the Guantanamo naval base occupied by the United States,” Cuba President Fidel Castro told NBC News at the time. “I wonder that, if Socialist countries refused to go to (the 1984 Olympics in) Los Angeles for security reasons, if really there is more security in Seoul than in Los Angeles.”
The boycotts couldn’t outshine the fact that the 1988 Olympics, the last Games of the
Cold War era, set a new record for the number of nations (159) and athletes (8,000) participating.
Of Note: Scandals tarnished the Seoul Games, including reports of residents being forced from their homes and homeless people being detained at facilities in preparation for the Games. Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson made global headlines when he was stripped of his world-record-setting 100-meter victory after testing positive for steroids, and controversial boxing calls that went against South Korean athletes caused outrage. North and South Korean leaders met following the events, and agreed to send a combined team to the 2021 Tokyo Summer Games. However, North Korea announced in April 2021 that it would not participate because of the coronavirus pandemic.