Policy Papers

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

Paul Corthorn |

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Executive Summary

  • 'Soft power', involving public relations and propaganda, is potentially useful as a means of furthering policy but requires sensitive handling in areas where government power is far from absolute.
  • In 1980 an Olympic boycott offered a viable means of fighting the Cold War in its cultural and ideological dimensions.
  • The boycott failed to have a significant impact because the Thatcher Government mishandled the situation in two key ways.
  • First, it became involved in a protracted - and counterproductive - row with the British Olympic Association, the autonomous body with which the final decision about Olympic participation lay.
  • Second, the government did not communicate quickly and effectively why an Olympic boycott was an appropriate policy response to the invasion of Afghanistan.
  • If soft power is to be used effectively, governments need to have good relationships with relevant organisations and a clear media strategy.


In 1980 Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government attempted to use a very specific form of 'soft power': it sought to introduce 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 but also committed it to a policy position that it was unable to fulfil. Unlike their American counterparts, and despite substantial effort by the government, the British Olympic Association (BOA), an independent organisation set up in 1905, decided to attend the games. This represented a political defeat for the Thatcher government that had been in power for less than a year and was struggling domestically with the effects of rising unemployment. Failure was not, however, the whole story. As this policy paper shows, the episode provides an illuminating case study of the potential utility, as well as the pitfalls, for governments using soft power in international affairs.

Soft power, the Cold War and sporting boycotts

Over the last 20 or so years the American political scientist Joseph S. Nye Jr has played the major part in outlining the value of the soft power of public relations and propaganda in attracting support for a government's point of view. This analysis of soft power, which has deepened understandings of the tools at the disposal of governments, developed in the context of the 'New World Order' of the 1990s. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States enjoyed unique status as the world's sole superpower but was urged to move carefully to persuade others to accept, and even embrace, its hegemonic position. The utility of soft power, defined in contrast (but not necessarily opposition) to 'hard' military power, has also been emphasised in the years after 2001. In this context, it has offered an alternative path to that pursued by President George W. Bush in the 'War on Terror'. The concept of soft power is now widely used by commentators and practitioners of international affairs but it has attracted its share of detractors, many of them coming from a realist perspective stressing military power and economic might. For example, the historian Niall Ferguson stated bluntly in Foreign Policy (in 2003 on the cusp of the invasion of Iraq which he supported) that 'the trouble with soft power is that it's, well, soft'.

The use of soft power offered a viable means of fighting the Cold War. The absence of direct military conflict in the nuclear era meant that the war was, in important respects, a global propaganda battle between 'East' and 'West'. This struggle for supremacy embraced not only ideological, economic and military aspects but also cultural ones - as David Caute has made clear. Sport, together with art, ballet, film, literature and music, was thus a significant part of the Cold War battleground.

By the mid-1970s boycotts of sporting events, used to make political arguments, had emerged as a particular form of soft power. Many African countries had chosen not to attend the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest at the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s refusal to suspend New Zealand following the All Blacks rugby union tour of Apartheid South Africa earlier in the year (South Africa itself had been banned from the Olympics since 1964). In Britain a substantial campaign developed in protest against the British Lions rugby union tour of South Africa planned for summer 1980. Amid the debates surrounding the invasion of Afghanistan, Lord Killanin (Michael Morris), President of the IOC, emphasised the separation of sport from politics as the Olympic ideal, but in practice they were already closely intertwined. The pursuit of détente - the relaxation of international tension - by US President Richard Nixon and his influential National Security Advisor and subsequently Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, was the backdrop to the IOC's decision in 1974 to award the 1980 games to Moscow. Moreover, after 1980 politics continued to intrude with the Soviet boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984.

In 1980 the British government was ready to exploit this situation. Historians, most notably Peter Beck and Kevin Jefferys, have shown that by the 1960s British governments, both Conservative and Labour, were aware that international sport could be used to support policy objectives. Following the invasion of Afghanistan, the idea of an Olympic boycott was first suggested by Rolf Pauls, the West German Ambassador to NATO. 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', while Thatcher considered it 'the gesture that would hurt the Soviet Government most'. Keen to deny the Soviet Union a propaganda victory, this perspective was endorsed by the Cabinet on 17 January, as part of a wider package of measures including not renewing the Anglo-Soviet credit agreement that had provided preferential interest rates.

The government and the British Olympic Association

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 it would need to tread extremely carefully. Opinion polls showing consistent public support for British participation, which increased as the games drew closer, made things awkward for the government. The real problem, however, was that the decision about participation in the Olympics rested with the various National Olympic Committees that were affiliated to the IOC. For this reason, Sir Robert Armstrong, Secretary to the Cabinet, explicitly questioned whether the government would be able to make any progress on the issue. Thatcher was more optimistic, placing hope in the possibility of moving the Olympics to another location. She wrote to Sir Denis Follows, the chairman of the BOA, 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.

At this juncture, the government stepped up the pressure on the BOA, exceeding its established role in the sporting sphere. It had recently, for example, only advised against the Lions tour of South Africa. Thatcher's comment in her autobiography that 'we tried to persuade' the athletes not to attend the games is an understatement. When she wrote again to Follows on 19 February, Thatcher powerfully asserted that 'British athletes have the same rights and the same responsibilities towards freedom and its maintenance as every citizen of the United Kingdom' and argued that participation would be tantamount to condoning an 'international crime'. Furthermore, in late February, Hector Monro, the Minister for Sport, told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that there would be no government financial assistance for athletes attending the Moscow Olympics. On previous occasions the government - through the Sports Council - had met costs not covered by the BOA public fundraising appeal. At this stage, there appeared to be room for mutual accommodation. Follows told the Foreign Affairs Committee the BOA would be attentive to the clear majority voice of the House of Commons. The government organised a Commons debate but, in the meantime, intensified its tactics, with Thatcher announcing that no special paid leave would be granted to civil servants or Armed Forces personnel who were participating as athletes. In the event, the government suffered a setback on 17 March when its parliamentary resolution in support of a boycott was endorsed by a relatively disappointing two-to-one majority. It was, therefore, unsurprising when the BOA announced on 25 March that it had accepted the invitation to attend the Olympics.

The government maintained its position. It applied pressure directly on high-profile athletes, such as the runner Sebastian Coe, not to attend the games. The government used the support of the US and West German National Olympic Committees to bolster its argument for a boycott. When Thatcher wrote again to Follows on 20 May, she stated that, in the absence of key competitors, the games could not 'now satisfy the aspirations' of the athletes. Dismissing the BOA's recent decision that its athletes would not take part in the opening and closing ceremonies with a representative instead carrying the IOC flag, Thatcher contended that there was no satisfactory intermediate position between attendance and boycott. The government had acted in an adversarial manner but it had not won over the BOA. By the end of May it was clear that only four sporting bodies supported the government line: hockey, yachting, shooting and equestrianism.

The government's tactics were also counterproductive, sparking accusations from across the political spectrum (and significantly from both supporters and opponents of a boycott) that the government was adopting 'Soviet' methods. Supporting a boycott, The Sunday Telegraph warned that only in the 'tyrannical world can the will of Governments and committees be enforced as absolutes'. Opposing a boycott, the Central Council for Physical Recreation (CCPR) asserted that 'in a truly democratic society, as opposed to a totalitarian one, it must be the responsibility of the individuals concerned and the BOA to determine whether to participate in the Moscow Olympics'. This put Thatcher very much on the defensive when she met CCPR representatives in early February.

The government position was awkward because its actions contradicted the widely held idea of the autonomy of sport as a liberal British value, in contrast to the Soviet Union which had made world supremacy in major sports a policy objective in 1948. Furthermore, with its New Right commitment to the 'free society' and vehement resistance to 'socialist' state intervention in the economy, which it viewed as the domestic corollary to its international opposition to the Soviet Union, the government appeared inconsistent and illogical. After Thatcher stated that there would be no special leave for civil servants and members of the Armed Forces a particularly powerful assault came from The Daily Mail. In spite of support of a boycott, the newspaper 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'.

Government communication and the public debate

Clear 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 on the Thatcher government's performance was negative. 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 was always going to face a difficult task meeting the objection that, in one sense, the proposed boycott was a punishment remote from the crime itself. However, it could have done more to articulate exactly how a boycott would affect the Soviet Union, thus undermining the right-wing argument that it was a weak policy instrument in a situation requiring a more traditional, military, response. For instance, the journalist Auberon Waugh, called for a reversal of the US decision to cancel production of the neutron bomb.

Relevant arguments were available on which the government could have drawn. Writing in The Spectator in early January 1980, Roger Boyes and Simon Freeman argued that a boycott would 'cause the Soviet people seriously to question the policies of the Kremlin'. That a boycott would impact on ordinary Russians formed part of the government case, but the reasons why were never made absolutely clear. In contrast, Boyes and Freeman argued that:

This is because of the extraordinary significance of sport to Soviet and East European societies...In the Soviet Union, gold medallists take on the symbolic role of New Socialist Men, gladiators in the battle against capitalism...The fact is that the Moscow Olympics are to be the supreme test of the 'winning system' of Soviet sport: the first opportunity to destroy Western sportsmen on home territory, with millions of Soviet viewers watching...The damage a boycott would cause...to the morale of the Soviet population would be immense. There really is no point in producing winners if there are no Western athletes to beat.

The government also failed to make it sufficiently clear that the boycott was one part (albeit the main element) of its policy, alongside significant restrictions on trade credit, the cancellation of several Anglo-Soviet military and naval exchanges, and collaboration in suspending international sales of grain, butter and sugar, as well as technology, to the Eastern bloc. This left the government open to the emotive charge that it was unfairly asking the athletes to make major personal sacrifices and fed into a wider concern, expressed by prominent British figures in the Olympic movement early on, that 'sport should be above politics'. Follows quickly asserted that the Olympics should not be used as a 'chopping board by politicians'. Similarly, Lord Exeter, a senior member of the IOC and former Olympic gold medallist stated his strong opposition to any form of political pressure. The swimmer Sharron Davies argued it was frankly unfair to ask the athletes to shoulder the burden of the British response, adding: 'Why should we pull out just because the politicians say so?'

Furthermore, in making public its stance relatively slowly, the government lost the momentum as the focus of public debate moved away from, leaving it unclear exactly what the boycott was for. In early January 1980 the prospects of gaining support for an Afghanistan-inspired boycott had appeared promising. Demands for it were forthcoming from the right-wing press and emerged across party lines in the House of Commons with the formation of a 'Hands Off Afghanistan' campaign. Yet it was not until 17 January that Thatcher gave the first public policy statement and it another week before Carrington explained that a boycott was a means of denying the Soviet Union an opportunity to increase its international prestige.

Having been involved in extensive international discussions about the wider response to the invasion of Afghanistan, the government's main concern at this juncture was to coordinate its actions with other governments, most notably its key international ally the United States, which called for a boycott. Indeed, a briefing paper prepared for Thatcher by Robert Wade-Gery, the Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet, expressly recommended no 'British pack-leading' or 'action in advance of main allies'. Jimmy Carter had stated that he was considering a boycott on 4 January but did not confirm that this was American policy until the 20 January. The broader background was the Anglo-American 'Special Relationship' on which Thatcher placed great value. The British government, and Carrington in particular, was also keen to work closely with the other countries in the European Economic Community (EEC), which Britain had joined in 1973. Yet, in the event, this did not prove possible, with the EEC Council of Ministers in early February only agreeing to release a muted statement of disapproval at the Soviet military action.

Altogether this meant that by the time the government announced and elaborated on its policy, significant calls had already emerged for an Olympic boycott because of the human rights abuses of political dissidents in the Soviet Union. Arguably the government should have been alert to the danger that its case for a boycott would be partially obscured. Human rights, emphasising individual freedoms, had risen to prominence in the years after the Second World War, not least through the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. With the West's embrace of them contrasting with the Soviet Union's emphasis on broader economic and social goals, human rights became a key area of rhetorical dispute during the Cold War. The inclusion of human rights in the 1975 Helsinki Agreement contributed further to this process. There had already been calls in Britain for a boycott on the basis on human rights in summer 1978, backed by the Liberal Party, The Guardian and the New Statesman. The campaign had soon dissipated but the arrest on 22 January 1980 of Andrei Sakharov, the nuclear physicist and most prominent member of the Helsinki Watch Committee set up to monitor Soviet adherence to the human rights accords, prompted renewed calls for a boycott. The chairman of the Scottish Liberal Party, and former Olympic sprinter, Menzies Campbell said: 'I'm afraid British athletes must face up to the disappointing fact that human rights have to come before the chance of winning medals.' The Liberal Party Council re-affirmed its view that Britain should not participate in the Moscow Olympics, citing the treatment of dissidents as its primary reason for doing so. The Church of England took a similar position, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, emphasising his concerns about the treatment of clergymen in the Russian Orthodox Church.

As the Olympics drew closer, calls for a human rights-inspired boycott continued to shape the public debate. The Labour Party made opposition to a boycott official party policy, later adding that a boycott would have no discernible impact on the Soviet Union. Significantly, the party felt the need to emphasise its commitment to human rights but to explain its view that détente (to which the Olympics contributed) had to be secured first in order to create an environment of international exchange in which respect for human rights could develop.


This purpose of this policy paper has been twofold: to demonstrate that a boycott was a feasible tool at the government's disposal but to suggest that the government did not fully grasp how best to use this form of soft power. Working in a context in which its own authority was limited, the government missed the opportunity for conciliation and quickly found itself working against, instead of with, the BOA. Perhaps the government never stood a chance of fully winning over the BOA but it is striking that Thatcher dismissed as totally inadequate the BOA's decision to abstain from the opening and closing ceremonies - in effect, a very partial boycott. The government could also have done more to communicate clearly the value of a boycott as a propaganda weapon in the Cold War that would affect the Soviet Union domestically as well as internationally. Articulating this forcefully would have enabled the government to dispel the arguments of its critics more robustly.

The Labour Party was wrong to state that a boycott would have no impact and notably did not apply the same reasoning to its support of a sporting boycott of South Africa. Moreover, the right-wing argument that a boycott was an inadequate response to growing Soviet power, which required some kind of military action, represented a particular (and arguably narrow) understanding of the nature of the Cold War that overlooked the potential for fighting it though 'cultural' means. This perspective failed to recognise that a boycott was a way of registering British disapproval without risking the escalation of international tension to a dangerous level. Soft power is useful if there is proper coordination and communication, an important reason why boycotts have been so widely used. In 1986 many African, Asian and Caribbean states boycotted the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in protest at what they saw as Thatcher's ambivalent attitude towards South Africa. In June 2012, just before the successful promotion of Britain on the world stage through the London Olympics, British Cabinet ministers boycotted England's games at the European Football Championships in Ukraine in protest at the state's human rights record while the government maintained its support of the footballers taking part and of the competition itself.

Further Reading

Peter J. Beck, 'Britain and the Cold War's "Cultural Olympics": responding to the political drive of Soviet sport, 1945-58', Contemporary British History 19, 2 (2005), 169-85

David Caute, The Dancer Defects: the struggle for cultural supremacy during the Cold War (Oxford, 2003)

Kevin Jefferys, Sport and Politics in Modern Britain: the road to 2012 (Basingstoke, 2012)

Joseph S. Nye Jr, 'Soft Power', Foreign Policy 80 (autumn, 1990), 153-71

Nicholas E. Sarantakes, Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic boycott, and the Cold War (New York, 2011)

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