Governments and ‘soft power’ in international affairs: Britain and the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics

A look back ahead of the World Athletic Championships 2013, hosted by Moscow, to that of the 1980 Moscow Olympics when Britain tried and failed to boycott the competition. Why and how did we fail to complete this soft power?

Paul Corthorn
6 August 2013



Flickr/Anders. Some rights reserved

In 1980 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Government attempted to use a specific form of ‘soft power’: it sought a British boycott of the forthcoming Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan that had taken place in late 1979. This allied the government to the United States under President Jimmy Carter, which also supported a boycott. But it also committed the British government to a policy position that it was unable to fulfil because it did not sufficiently understand how to use soft power effectively.

Unlike their American counterparts, and despite substantial effort by the British government, the British Olympic Association (BOA) decided to attend the games. This political defeat for the Thatcher government, which had been in power for less than a year, compounded its domestic struggles. Rising unemployment had already dented the government’s popularity as it sought to control inflation as part of its monetarist approach. Failure was not, however, the whole story. The government’s drive to secure an Olympic boycott also provides an illuminating case study of the potential utility, as well as the pitfalls, for governments using soft power in international affairs. 

Soft power, involving public relations and propaganda, can be a useful means of furthering policy. The notion of soft power, a concept developed by political scientists, such as Joseph S. Nye Jr., from the 1990s, can usefully be applied to the past.  For example, it offered a viable means of fighting the Cold War. The absence of direct military conflict in the nuclear era meant that this war became an ideological, economic and cultural battle between ‘East’ and ‘West’. Meanwhile, boycotts of sporting events became a particular form of soft power in the 1970s. For example, many African countries boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) refused to suspend New Zealand following the All Blacks rugby union tour of Apartheid South Africa earlier that year (South Africa had been banned from the Olympics since 1964).

When Rolf Pauls, the West German Ambassador to NATO, suggested an Olympic boycott in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the British government did not need convincing. Lord Carrington (Peter Carrington), the Foreign Secretary, argued that “few things would hurt Soviet prestige more than the absence of a number of Western countries from the Olympic Games”. Thatcher considered that it was ‘the gesture that would hurt the Soviet Government most’. On 17 January, the Cabinet endorsed a boycott as part of a package of measures including not renewing the Anglo-Soviet credit agreement that had provided preferential interest rates since 1975.

Soft power often involves governments operating in areas where their power is far from absolute, partial at best and usually better described as 'some degree of influence.' In early January 1980 Carrington warned Thatcher that the government’s role was circumscribed and that, given the BOA’s autonomy over Britain’s participation in the Olympic Games, it would need to tread extremely carefully. Thatcher was more optimistic, placing hope in the possibility of moving the Olympics to another location. She wrote to Sir Denis Follows, BOA chairman, on 22 January with this proposal but received a reply emphasising the difficulties given the IOC’s view that Moscow had fulfilled all of its technical requirements.

The government stepped up the pressure on the BOA, exceeding its accepted role in the sporting sphere. Without reference to the BOA, the government announced that there would be no state financial assistance for athletes attending the Moscow Olympics. Previously, through the Sports Council, the government had met costs not covered by the BOA’s public fundraising appeal. Thatcher also made it clear that no special paid leave would be granted to civil servants or Armed Forces personnel participating in the Games. Despite this pressure, the BOA announced in late March that it had accepted the invitation to attend the Olympics. The government had not only failed to persuade the BOA but also exposed itself to accusations from across the political spectrum (significantly from both supporters and opponents of a boycott) that it was adopting ‘Soviet’ methods. With its New Right commitment to the ‘free society’ and vehement resistance to ‘socialist’ state intervention in the economy, the government was accused of inconsistency. Despite supporting a boycott, The Daily Mail stated that it was “intolerable that this Government, of all Governments – a Government that abhors Communist serfdom – should now seek to make British athletes jump to the Tories’ bidding by what is no more or less than a crack of the totalitarian whip”. 

Clear and consistent communication is essential for the successful use of soft power by a government seeking to shape the terms of public debate. In 1980 the verdict was not positive. An editorial in The Times argued that the government “did not make the best of their brief”, while The Sunday Telegraph called it a “failure of communication”. The government faced an uphill struggle against the objection that the proposed boycott was a punishment remote from the crime and that it was unfair to expect athletes to make major personal sacrifices. The government could, however, have done more to explain exactly how a boycott would affect the Soviet Union domestically, by damaging morale in a country that idealised sport, as well as internationally. 

Furthermore, in setting out its position in public relatively slowly (as it engaged in extensive international negotiations), the government lost the momentum as the focus of debate moved away from Afghanistan to other issues relating to the Cold War, leaving the rationale for the boycott unclear. This was particularly problematic as calls for a boycott increased from parts of the left, for a different reason – human rights abuses of political dissidents in the Soviet Union. The chairman of the Scottish Liberal Party, and former Olympic sprinter, Menzies Campbell, saw the issue starkly:  “I’m afraid British athletes must face up to the disappointing fact that human rights have to come before the chance of winning medals”. 

Soft power is useful if the government has good relationships with relevant organisations and a clear media strategy. As a means of registering disapproval without risking the escalation of international tension to dangerous levels, boycotts have considerable attractions. The Soviet Union’s boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, widely seen as retaliation for the American boycott four years earlier, is the most well-known example. Turning the tables on the actions of the British government in 1980, many African, Asian and Caribbean states boycotted the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in protest at Thatcher’s resistance to the implementation of economic sanctions against Apartheid South Africa. 

This article draws on 'The Cold War and British debates over the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics', Cold War History 13, 1 (2013), 43-66. It is co-published with

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