- Dropping the Torch: Jimmy Carter, the Olympic Boycott, and the Cold War
The father of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, believed that keeping the games free from politics was crucial for their survival. He promoted an Olympic ideal in which international sport would serve as a tool for the establishment and maintenance of peaceful relations between nations. Nicholas Sarantakes maintains Coubertin’s point of view in his recounting of the controversy surrounding the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the American boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Sarantakes’ detailed account of the boycott focuses on the Carter administration’s thought processes and course of action in carrying out the boycott. His work provides an interesting snapshot of Carter’s unique style of diplomacy, which Sarantakes characterizes as being marked by leadership that was “ineffective” and “counterproductive” as well as being plagued by “poor judgment” (p. 281). Arguing against the works of David B. Kanin, Martin Barry Vinokur, and to a degree, Derick L. Hulme, Jr., Sarantakes sees the boycott as a complete and utter failure. He places the blame for the “ineffective” boycott on Carter’s shoulders saying he “failed as trustee” (p. 281). At the heart of his study is the story of, in his words, an American presidential cabinet’s attempt to destroy the Olympic movement because of their ignorance of international sport and failure to move the boycott proposal through the proper channels. However, as Sarantakes points out, a majority of the American public, Congress, and many foreign officials favored the boycott—a point that takes the teeth out of his criticism of the Carter administration.
As a work of diplomatic history, Sarantakes also takes on Melvyn P. Leffler by arguing that Carter killed détente by boycotting the Moscow games, rejecting Leffler’s contention that Brezhnev killed détente by invading Afghanistan (p. 282). Sarantakes also sees the boycott as an abuse of the Olympic games as well as a cruel and unnecessary punishment for American athletes. While relying heavily on Allen Guttman’s and Alfred Erich Senn’s work on the Olympic movement, Sarantakes’ extensive use of Carter’s presidential materials provides an original contribution that highlights the intricacies of the politics surrounding the Olympic movement.
His book effectively takes the reader by the hand and leads them through what could otherwise be a very confusing story, involving numerous politicians and the actions of many countries. Readers will surely appreciate Sarantakes’ clarity in detailing the events leading up to the boycott. However, his narrative does stray from the central theme of the book. Such is the case with his first chapter, “Miracle on Ice.” It is an exciting read, but an explanation of its relevancy to the boycott of the summer Olympics would help the book seem more complete. There is also an unnecessary chapter detailing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
While admitting that it is impossible to keep the games entirely free of politics, Sarantakes argues that the Olympics have been a “positive force in world affairs” (p. 261). [End Page 344] An example that Sarantakes goes back to on numerous occasions to illustrate this point is the success that Jesse Owens had in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He contends that Owens’ success was powerful enough to refute the Nazi myth of Aryan supremacy and to cause Hitler to suffer “reverses” (p. 20). Readers may take issue with the use of the 1936 games for comparison since the circumstances were significantly different from those in 1980. Some posit that a major factor in Carter’s decision to boycott was his desire to reinvent himself as tough on Communism, specifically in an election year; it would have been interesting to see Sarantakes’ insights into this theory. It would have also been interesting to see more Russian sources incorporated into the text. Regardless, Dropping the Torch is an engaging read that makes a meaningful contribution to the fields of sport history and diplomatic history. Sarantakes’ use...