The 1980 Moscow Games: An Olympic controversy which split Ireland, and the world

The Tokyo Olympics are off but in 1980, a longer and far more controversial saga threatened the Moscow Games
The 1980 Moscow Games: An Olympic controversy which split Ireland, and the world
David Wilkins' silver medal from the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Picture: Piaras Ó Mídheach / Sportsfile

Jim Tunney could have hardly been clearer when he addressed a gathering of top athletes at a meeting in the Ballinteer Sports Complex. This was six months before the Games would begin in Moscow and less than one since the USSR had launched its shock Christmas Eve invasion of Afghanistan and, with it, talk of boycotts and sanctions.

“Athletes must not use the current controversies concerning the Olympics as an excuse for letting up in training,” said the then Minister of State at the Department of Education. “Time lost now can never be regained.” 

That seemed to be that but the waters were only just being muddied and it would be May before most of Ireland's finest could wash any of the doubt from their minds.

Jimmy Carter would call for a US boycott just days after Tunney's pronouncement in South Dublin and the White House followed it up with letters urging other heads of state to do the same. Charles J Haughey among them. By February, the European Parliament was urging EEC governments to stay away and, in the end, 66 nations stood themselves down while 88 pressed ahead.

Consensus defied regions, nationalities, and even Cold War frontlines.

West Germany pulled out, for instance, but France travelled. The Australian government declared an intention to ignore the Games, their Olympic committee voted narrowly in favour of participating, and then some of their athletes pulled out while the rest competed under an Olympic flag.

In that, it was a story of its times, one echoed many times over.

Misha the bear, the official mascot for the 1980 Moscow Games, sets the scene at the Lenin Central Stadium. Photo: PA
Misha the bear, the official mascot for the 1980 Moscow Games, sets the scene at the Lenin Central Stadium. Photo: PA

The Moscow question threw up all manner of unlikely contributors to the debate in Ireland. A body calling itself the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry protested at a national sports show at the RDS while members of Fine Gael picketed the Soviet Embassy in Rathgar. The Dublin Council of Trade Unions, meanwhile, voted to give £50 to the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI) for expenses.

Not an ideal backdrop for those aiming to compete.

“We as athletes didn't get caught up in it,” says Eamonn Coghlan. “Our biggest concern was 'will it happen, won't it happen?' That was on a daily basis. We didn't have the luxury of social media and the amount of information that is around the world at an instant now so we were able to hide ourselves from that. That's the way we dealt with it in our own little cocooned way back then.” 

The question was what the Government's official stance would be.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Brian Lenihan told the Dáil in February that he would like to see an Irish team travel as long as the Games remained meaningful but, while public support for that stance grew in opinion polls through the spring, the mood was changing inside Government Buildings and the decision was ultimately made to support the US-led boycott on May 17.

That was far from that. The Olympic Council of Ireland met just days later and decided that it would push on regardless with its plans to compete. Nineteen governing bodies were on board with three abstaining and only one falling the other side of the fence. Problem was that the naysayer was the Irish Amateur Boxing Association (IABA).

This was not good news. Barry McGuigan was among the country's top hopes. In Rimini for the European Juniors when the IABA made its call to stay at home, the Monaghan man took the news like a right-hand to the solar plexus but there were others besides with solid ambitions of a podium place.

Hugh Russell (right), bronze medal winner at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games, with Paddy Barnes after he won bronze at the London 2012 Games. Picture: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Hugh Russell (right), bronze medal winner at the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games, with Paddy Barnes after he won bronze at the London 2012 Games. Picture: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile

“That put the frighteners on as to whether it was going to happen at all,” Russell remembers. “Our coaches at that stage were always telling us that we would have to prepare with the mindset that it was happening. We went into a training camp in Drogheda, all seven boxers on the team, and just got on with what we had to do.” 

The AIBA would change its mind soon enough but the Government wasn't for turning. There would be no ban on civil servants competing but the OCI, already down a six-figure sum from commercial sponsors due to concerns over a boycott, was deprived of the vast majority of an £80,000 grant from the public exchequer. A public appeal for funds would still leave them short £40,000 after the Games.

Russell would return to Dublin a hero where he was met by his father and mother at the airport. So would David Wilkins and James Wilkinson who had claimed a silver in sailing's Flying Dutchman class but the Government's objection to it all was apparent even then. The only official figure to welcome the team home was Fergus O'Brien, the Lord Mayor of Dublin.

It was a sour postscript with the athletes stuck in the middle of a wider, messier conflict, one which had far more grey area to it than the morally obvious case to be argued over tours to apartheid-era South Africa, and a debate which had divided opinion along all manner of lines and affiliations.

Mel Christle, the heavyweight boxer, had it right when he quoted Aristotle earlier in 1980 and observed that all acts are in some way political. They were words that would be echoed on the eve of the Games when Lord Killanin, the International Olympic Committee president, addressed members of the movement at the renowned Bolshoi Theatre.

“I deeply regret that many athletes, either through political dictation or the dictates of their own consciences, are not with us at the Games,” said the Irishman. “Let me stress again... I believe the athlete is frequently the victim of sports administrators.”

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