From Philly with Love
When the United States boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, Franklin Field did its best to host an "alternate" Olympics.
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 024, July 2020
By Liam Boylan-Pett
On Valentine’s Day 1980, at a National Security Council meeting in the White House Situation Room that included members of the C.I.A., the state department, and the treasury, White House Counsel Lloyd Cutler informed the room that thirty-six nations had expressed support for the United States’ stance on that year’s Summer Olympics in Moscow. That stance was made clear three weeks earlier, when President Jimmy Carter announced on Meet the Press, that, unless the Soviet Union withdrew their troops from Afghanistan, he would insist “the Olympic games be moved from Moscow to an alternative site, or multiple sites, or postponed or canceled.” The nations that supported Carter, Cutler told those in the room, believed it would be best if there were an alternative set of games at one or more sites.
The U.S. was already hard at work on this. Carter had enlisted Muhammad Ali to lobby in African countries, and a memo from the State Department to the American embassy in the Ivory Coast read, “You might also broach subject of getting Ivory coast to serve as a site for some Olympic-type sporting events in late 1980.” Planning an alternative Olympics would not, Cutler warned, be easy. The U.S. had to convince other international federations to sanction competitions, and they had to find a way to pay for them. “Although we prefer to hold the games elsewhere,” Cutler said, “we may be forced at some point to host the games ourselves.”
During a March 6 N.S.C. meeting, Cutler said plans for a post-Olympic competition were gaining traction. “We should know by the end of March,” he said, “whether the alternative games are a realistic prospect.” In a memo recounting the meeting, President Carter underlined that statement and wrote in the margins that they must happen. Two weeks later, Cutler reported that twelve nations had met in Geneva, and that they were zeroing in on locations for what was being called an “International Sports Festival” that would take place after the Moscow Olympics.
By the end of the month, however, those best laid plans had unraveled. “Both our efforts to generate an effective international boycott of the Moscow Olympics and our plan to convoke alternate games are in danger of turning to ashes,” a late-March memo by the N.S.C. staff read. The British Olympic Committee did not adhere to its government's advice to boycott. Other nations that were boycotting did not want to host the separate competition. Everything was falling apart. Soon, the memos in the president’s daily briefings did not include information about the International Sports Festival or other news regarding the boycott.
In the end, sixty-four countries joined the U.S. to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics. Eighty countries, however, did compete in Moscow from July 19 to August 3, and thirty-six world records were set over multiple sports.
The International Sports Festival, meanwhile, never got off the ground. There would be no Olympic-style competitions in the Ivory Coast or Athens or Melbourne. There would be no rebuttal to the Moscow Olympics by those who boycotted after the fact. Organizing an international competition and festival for multiple sports proved, as Cutler predicted, too much to ask.
There was one sport, however, that was still working behind the scenes with the White House to host some sort of Olympic alternative—a sport that was doing its best to give the country and President Carter something to show for the boycotted Olympic Games.
Which is why, on June 18, 1980, University of Pennsylvania Athletic Director, Charles Harris picked up the phone. Joe Onek, an aide to Cutler, was on the other end of the line. He had a request: Franklin Field had to host a track meet.
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