Moscow Olympics

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Subject essay: Lewis Siegelbaum

Bread and circuses, the formula by which the emperors of ancient Rome sought to retain their authority and popularity, were not unknown in the Soviet Union. Holiday parades and carnivals, celebrations accompanying feats of aviation and exploration, and other spectacles — including the circus — provided entertainment while reinforcing a sense of national identity and well-being among citizens of the USSR. The Summer Olympic Games of 1980, awarded to Moscow in 1974 by the International Olympic Committee, represented an unparalleled opportunity to showcase the superiority of Soviet athletes as well as the achievements of Soviet socialism before a world-wide audience.

Extraordinary measures were taken to prepare for this grand festival of sports. A frenzy of construction, typical of host cities, resulted in not only new stadiums, training facilities, and hotels, but a new airport at Sheremet’evo. The city itself was spruced up. Roads were newly paved, trees were planted, debris was cleared, and wall murals and flags, many displaying “Misha,” the cuddly bear who was the mascot of these Olympics, festooned the boulevards. Jobs for translators, guides, and guards were highly sought after, and already in October 1978, the Soviet media was authorized to crank out publicity about the games to counteract negative propaganda from the West.

Unfortunately for the (already tarnished) image of the Olympics as transcending politics, if not the prestige of the Soviet Union, the United States and 55 other nations decided to boycott the games in protest over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Still, Soviet fans flocked to even the most obscure events, filling venues to near capacity. In all, 5.2 million tickets were sold of which 3.9 million were purchased by Soviet citizens. The boycott thus failed to cast a pall over the 1980 Olympics, although it did deepen the atmosphere of Cold War. Four years later, the Los Angeles Summer Olympics were boycotted by the Soviet Union and most other Communist nations of eastern Europe, ostensibly for security reasons.

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