Olympic Boycotts

So Russia is threatening a potential Olympic Boycott if they are severely disciplined for doping transgressions at Sochi 2014. If required to compete as neutrals or under the Olympic Flag and Olympic Anthem, it is possible they will elect to boycott PyeongChang entirely.

There has not been an Olympic Boycott since the 1988 Seoul Olympics, also in Korea. That year, 6 nations elected not to compete, led by DPR Korea (North Korea), for obvious reasons. They were joined by Albania, Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, and The Seychelles, which led to then IOC Vice-President Dick Pound to utter one of his more memorable lines, “The Seychelles? Hell, it’s only a country at low tide anyway.”

The first Olympic Boycott occurred in 1952 when Chinese Taipei refused to compete at Helsinki in protest of mainland China being allowed to compete. Chinese Taipei was the only nation that boycotted Helsinki, but the China Problem would cause problems for the IOC until it was titularly solved in 1980 after negotiations by Lord Killanin.

In 1956 at Melbourne, six nations boycotted over two separate political / military actions. On 29 October Israel invaded Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, causing Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq to withdraw from the Olympics in protest. On 4 November 1956 Soviet tanks invaded Budapest to put down an uprising there, with the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland withdrawing from Melbourne in protests. Hungary competed in Melbourne, although they likely had little choice, but scores of Hungarian athletes defected, many remaining in Australia, but also a number emigrating to the United States. Switzerland technically still competed at the 1956 Olympics, because they had already had athletes at the 1956 Equestrian Olympics held in Stockholm in June 1956.

There was a small boycott of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and it was due to a complex situation. In the summer of 1962, Jakarta hosted the Asian Games, but it refused to issue visas to athletes from Taiwan and Israel, for which, the IOC suspended the Indonesian NOC. In response Indonesian President Sukarno held an international multi-sport event in Jakarta in 1963 – called the Games of the New Emerging Forces, usually known as GANEFO. China competed at GANEFO, as did DPR Korea (North), and North Vietnam. Unfortunately, none of those nations were recognized by the athletics (IAAF) or swimming (FINA) federations. In response any athletes from Indonesia or North Korea who competed at GANEFO were banned by those federations from competing at Tokyo (China was not a recognized NOC at the time and could not compete). In retribution, Indonesia and North Korea both boycotted the Tokyo Olympics. There was one major loss from that, as by 1964 the North Korean runner Sin Kim-Dan had broken the world records in the 400 and 800 metres, although they were not recognized by the IAAF, and could have been favored for gold medals in those events, if allowed to compete.

There was no Olympic Boycott in 1968 or 1972, although those Games were hardly without problems.  In 1976 26 African nations elected not to compete in protest of the the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby squad playing on a tour of South Africa. South Africa was banned from most international sport at the time because of apartheid, and the African nations wanted New Zealand banned from the 1976 Olympics. The IOC pointed out that they had no jurisdiction over rugby football as a sport and refused to do so, and the African nations walked. For athletics fans, this prevented the big match-up they were anticipating between New Zealand’s John Walker and Tanzania’s Filbert Bayi in the 1,500 metres, which Walker went on to win in Bayi’s absence.

Chinese Taipei also boycotted the 1976 Olympics. This occurred when Canada at first refused to allow them to enter the country, as the Canadian government did not recognize the island nation.  This was in direct violation of the contract they had signed as the host nation to admit all eligible nations in honoring the Olympic Charter.  The Canadians acquiesced and allowed the Taiwanese to compete, but refused to allow them to do so under the title of the Republic of China, their official national name.  Several other countries protested and threatened withdrawal, notably the United States, if the Taiwanese athletes were not allowed to compete.  However, these protests were short-lived and the IOC finally gave in to the Canadian government.  Chinese Taipei watched the Olympics from afar, if at all.

The largest known Olympic Boycott occurred in 1980, when the United States government led a boycott of the 1980 Moskva Olympics after the December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. President Jimmy Carter announced in early January that the United States would not compete if Soviet troops did not withdraw by 20 February 1980. They did not. US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance addressed the IOC Session at Lake Placid in February to announce the US Boycott, which greatly angered the IOC Members. With pressure from the US government, eventually 65 nations did not compete at the 1980 Moskva Olympics. It is actually difficult to say how many actually boycotted as various reasons are given for their absence, but suffice to say that 65 IOC member nations decided not to compete in Moskva.

And 1980 led to the Soviet Union not competing at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, convincing 14 nations under their influence to also not compete. The Soviet’s rationale was that they were not convinced that the USA could guarantee their safety in Los Angeles, but nobody believed their boycott was anything other than retribution for the 1980 US Boycott.

And then came the small 1988 Seoul boycott of 6 nations, since which time there as been no Olympic Boycott. Of note, there has never been a boycott of a Winter Olympics, which could possibly occur in PyeongChang if Russia elects to stay home in anger over doping penalties.

To date, Albania is the Olympic leader in boycotts, having stayed home 4 times (1976, 1980, 1984, 1988), with 3 nations having boycotted 3 times – Egypt, Ethiopia, and DPR Korea. DPR Korea (North) has no qualified athletes for PyeongChang as of 3 December 2017, after failing to enter their figure skating pairs duo in time, so technically they are not boycotting if they do not compete in PyeongChang. The IOC would like them there and there are some negotiations ongoing to see what can be done.

Will Russia compete in PyeongChang? Will North Korea? We await Einstein’s space-time continuum to work its magic and tell us the answer.