Bruised Egos, Battles, and Boycott: The 1980 Moscow Olympics

by Elise Stevens Wilson

Background

Politics and sports have intermingled since the inception of the Olympic Games in Greece, but not until the 1980 Olympics did people fear that politics might destroy the Olympic movement and spirit. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and the United States of America battled each other ideologically, economically, militarily, culturally, and politically in a very long Cold War that spanned more than forty years (1948–1991). In the midst of the Cold War, the two countries often met in sporting arenas around the world to compete for medals. In 1980, Moscow hosted the Summer Olympics, the first Olympics held in a communist country. Because the United States and the USSR were deep in conflict, especially over the recent movement of Soviet troops into Afghanistan in 1979, the Olympics became an extension of the political arena. The United States did not show up for the games. The 1980 Olympics were not unusual because they were political, but because the extreme degree to which they were politicized had never before been seen. Many Americans and Soviets alike feared that the Olympics would be destroyed if politics infiltrated the games.

In 1980, some Americans believed it their duty to boycott the Olympic Games. Others felt that the Olympics were meant be a de-politicized time when countries could put aside their differences and celebrate something they had in common: sports. These opinions were discussed and debated in the media. Journalists, politicians, athletes, and average citizens expressed their feelings about, and their justifications for or against, the boycott. The 1980 Summer Olympics are significant both in sports history and Cold War history.

Overview

In this two-day lesson, students will investigate the various reasons for the boycott and the ways Americans analyzed the 1980 Moscow Olympics at the time. Students will use periodicals as their tools for examining this period in history, and teachers should take the opportunity to discuss media bias. Students will gather information from articles and participate in a debate over whether the US should have boycotted. Additionally, a PowerPoint accompanies this lesson to aid in background information.

Objectives

  • Students will be able to identify various points of view.
  • Students will be able to describe why the boycott is significant to both sports history and Cold War history.
  • Students will be able to effectively debate using arguments gathered from American periodicals.
  • Students will formulate opinions on whether politics should be mix with sporting events.

Materials

Additional Resources

Day One (45–60 minutes)

Use the Think, Pair, Share method or a journal prompt, and ask students the following: Do you think political disagreements between countries should affect their participation in the Olympics? Or: If you were the leader of a country, and the Olympic Games were being held in another country that you believed committed crimes against its people, would you send your athletes to that country? (5 minutes)

Use the 1980 Moscow Olympics Background PowerPoint to introduce the Cold War and the back story to the Moscow Games. (7–10 minutes)

Take some time to discuss media bias with students. Tell students that they will be working with periodicals and that they should take bias into account when reading these sources. (5 minutes)

Divide students into groups of 3–4, and give each group a different article from US periodicals—arguments for and against the boycott found under Materials. Instruct students to read the articles in groups and underline sections that express an opinion about the boycott. (10–15 minutes)

Give each group a large piece of paper and colored markers. Ask each group to discuss their article and write down key ideas. At the top, they should indicate whether are pro-boycott, anti-boycott, or split. (5–10 minutes)

In groups, students should prepare for a debate on whether America should have boycotted the Olympics in Moscow. You can set up the debate in one of two ways.

  1. Students can take on the personalities mentioned in the articles, such as athletes, politicians, the President, the International Olympic Committee, or even the US Olympic Committee, and debate each other on a television show that is similar to The McLaughlin Group or Meet the Press.
  2. Students can be members of a presidential advisory committee on the Olympics. Their job is to convince the President which position to take on the boycott.

Some articles will have opposing viewpoints, so you should divide groups into two. Students should create a slogan that best represents their opinions. This slogan can be displayed during the debate. (15 minutes)

Homework

Students should prepare for the debate. To make the debate more interesting, students can dress appropriately for their roles.

Day Two (45–60 minutes)

Most of this class period will be spent on the debate for which students have prepared the previous day. Lay down the ground rules for the debate. There are a number of different ways to hold a class debate. (5 minutes)

Here is one suggestion for a class debate:

1) Assign a student to be a moderator or the teacher can be the moderator. If you chose option (a) for the debate, the moderator can act as the television host. If you chose option (b) for the debate, the moderator can be the President of the United States. 2) Only one person may speak at a time. 3) While a person is speaking others should take notes to use to further support their position or to attack the other side. 4) Provide a time limit for each person to speak (1–2 minutes). 5) Make sure each side has an equal amount of time to speak. 6) At the end of the debate, one student from each side gets one minute to provide closing arguments. 7) Remind them that they are not students, but either the personalities from the articles or members of a presidential committee, and they can feel free to take on these roles fully.

Allow students to meet with their sides for a few minutes. They should pick who will give the closing argument and perhaps who should speak first, second, third, etc. (5 minutes)

Proceed with the debate. (15–25 minutes)

Debrief the debate. Ask students how they would feel about the boycott using the barometer method. For this method, students line up on an imaginary line in the classroom with one end of the line representing the choice to boycott, and the other the choice to attend the Olympics. Students can stand anywhere along this spectrum and justify their position. (5 minutes)

Choose one or more of the articles from US periodicalscoverage of the Moscow Olympics and the boycott found under Materials. Read the article(s) as a class, and make sure to point out the media bias. This will give students some closure to the issue of the boycott as well as allow them to see more of the language and rhetoric used during the Cold War. (10–20 minutes)

Ask students to write a response to the following prompts. (5 minutes)

  • In this debate, who had the most persuasive argument and why?
  • Evaluate whether the Moscow Olympic Games were an appropriate battleground for the Cold War.

Assessments

In addition to the debate and written responses, students can be assessed in the following manner:

  • Students can write a letter to President Carter either in support of or in opposition to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. Make sure they identify the reasons for their opinions.
  • Students can research other Olympics that have been politicized and write a comparison paper focusing on whether sports activities should be political.
  • Students can research articles from major American newspapers on whether the United States should have supported the Beijing Games in 2008. Many people felt that China, a communist country, had violated human rights and therefore should not be supported. It is an excellent, modern analogy to the Moscow Olympics.

Extension

As an extension to this lesson plan, the students can explore how Soviet periodicals covered the boycott and the Moscow Olympics. A good source with an English translation is The Current Digest of the Post-Soviet Press.

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