The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 spurred US President Jimmy Carter to issue an ultimatum on January 20, 1980: If Soviet troops did not withdraw from Afghanistan within one month, the United States would boycott the Moscow Olympics in summer 1980. After its April 24 meeting, the head of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) Robert Kane told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that the USOC would be willing to send a team to Moscow if there were a "spectacular change in the international situation". On January 26, 1980, Canadian Prime Minister Joe Clark announced that like the US, Canada would boycott the Olympics if the Soviets didn't leave Afghanistan by February 20, 1980.
Lord Killanin, then president of the IOC, arranged to meet and discuss the boycott with Jimmy Carter and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, before the 24 May deadline in an attempt to save the Games. Lord Killanin insisted that the Games should continue as scheduled, and Carter reaffirmed the US position to boycott unless the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan.
Several interventions at the late April 1980 Bilderberg meeting in Aachen included discussion of the implications of the boycott. It was forcefully argued the world would perceive a boycott as little more than a sentimental protest, and not a strategic act. An African representative at the Bilderberg meeting voiced a different view: whether there was additional support outside the US or not, he believed, a boycott would be an effective symbolic protest and be dramatically visible to those within the Soviet Union. The Carter administration brought considerable pressure to bear on other NATO member-States to support the boycott. Their support was not universal.
The International Olympics Federations protested that the pressures by the US and other supporting countries for the boycott was an inappropriate means to achieve a political end, and the victims of this action would be the athletes. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt said that the American attitude that the allies "should simply do as they are told" was unacceptable.
Boxer Muhammad Ali was dispatched by the US administration to Tanzania, Nigeria, and Senegal to convince their leaders to join the boycott. It was widely said in the US domestic press that reactions to Ali's public comments in Tanzania supported the view that his diplomatic mission was a failure.
Certain countries ultimately joined the US in a full boycott of the Games. These included Japan and West Germany where Chancellor Schmidt was able to convince the National Olympic Committee (NOC) to support the boycott by a narrow margin. China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada also boycotted the Games entirely. Some of these countries competed at the alternative "Liberty Bell Classic" or Olympic Boycott Games held in Philadelphia that same year.
The governments of the United Kingdom, France, and Australia supported the boycott, but left any final decision over the participation of their country's athletes to their respective NOCs and the decision of their individual athletes. The United Kingdom and France sent a much smaller athletic delegation than would have originally been possible. The British associations that governed equestrian sports, hockey, and yachting completely boycotted the 1980 summer Olympics. Nevertheless, the United Kingdom sent 170 sportsmen and women to compete, the largest team of athletes from among West European countries.
Spain, Italy, Sweden, Iceland and Finland were other principal nations representing western Europe at the Games. Italian athletes serving in its military corps could not attend the Games, however, because of the national government's official support of the boycott. Many events were affected by the loss of participants and some US-born athletes who were citizens of other countries, such as Italy and Australia, did compete in Moscow.
A firm enemy of the United States under Ayatollah Khomeini's new theocracy, Iran also boycotted the Moscow Games after Khomeini joined the condemnation by the United Nations and the Islamic Conference of the invasion of Afghanistan. Independently of the United States, the Islamic Conference urged a boycott of Moscow after the invasion; the Ayatollah meanwhile accused Moscow of arming the Baluchis against his regime.
Many teams were avoided by Soviet television at the Games during the opening and closing ceremonies because their national governments officially supported the boycott. Their national colors could not be flown nor could their anthems be played (Australia, Andorra, Belgium, Denmark, France, United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Puerto Rico, San Marino, Spain, and Switzerland).
Lord Killanin permitted NOC-qualified athletes to compete at the Games without their national flags or anthems (which allowed NOCs to send athletes in a non-national context) but this did not allow other individuals lacking NOC sanction to participate in the Games as this was perceived by the IOC as a potential weakening of their authority. Four sportspeople (including one athlete) from New Zealand competed independently and marched under their NOC flag because the government officially supported the boycott. The athletes of 16 countries did not fly their national flags. Instead NOC flags were raised and the Olympic Anthem replaced their national anthems at the medal ceremonies. There was one awards ceremony where three NOC flags were raised.
Other modifications were made in the Games activities, such as when the Boycott prevented Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau from attending the Moscow Games. Sandra Henderson and Stéphane Préfontaine, the final torchbearers at the previous games, were sent in his stead to participate in the Antwerp Ceremony at the opening ceremony, and at the closing ceremony, the Los Angeles city flag (rather than the United States flag) was raised to symbolize the next host of the Olympic Games. The Antwerp flag was received by an IOC member from the USA instead of the mayor of Los Angeles, Tom Bradley; there was no handover to Los Angeles ceremony at the closing.
With only eighty participating countries, the lowest number since 1956, the Moscow Games have the distinction that more world records were set there than by the fuller contingent attending at the previous summer games in Montreal, 1976.
On May 24, 1980, Gary Fanelli wore a shirt that read "The Road to Moscow Ends Here" for the marathon time trial in response to the boycott of the Moscow Olympics. The marathon took place in Buffalo, New York.
Sixty-six countries that were invited to participate in the 1980 Olympics did not do so for various reasons including support for the boycott and economic reasons. Qatar could not be invited until IOC recognition which occurred in 1980 but too late to be invited. Taiwan refused to participate as a result of the 1979 Nagoya Resolution, in which the People's Republic of China agreed to participate in IOC activities if Taiwan was referred to as "Chinese Taipei".
The sixteen nations that follow participated in the Games under some adjustment to full conventional participation in the Games activities.
Seven countries participated in the Games without taking part in the Opening Ceremony:
Two nations sent one representative each (Chef de Mission) who entered the Olympic stadium during the Opening Ceremony under the Olympic flag; for each country this was a token gesture, as their governments allowed athletes to take part in the Games if they chose to do so. Ireland also competed under the Olympic flag, rather than its own. Great Britain – Richard Palmer
Ireland – Ken Ryan
At least 5 national teams participated at the Games under the Olympic flag rather than their respective National or NOC flags, as doing the latter would have denoted that their participation was officially sanctioned by their respective nations. Australia
Originally, the U.S. envisaged staging rival games if the Olympics went ahead in Moscow. In the end, events were staged separately in several sports, including the Liberty Bell Classic for track and field and the USGF International Invitational for gymnastics, to which athletes from boycotting countries were invited. At the U.S. Swimming Nationals, the split and finishing times from the corresponding Olympic events the previous week were displayed on the scoreboards so that a virtual comparison of medals "won" by U.S. swimmers could be kept.
The succeeding 1984 Summer Olympics, held in Los Angeles, California, saw another boycott, this time led by the Soviet Union. On May 8, 1984, the Soviet Union issued a statement that the country would boycott the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles due to "chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria being whipped up in the United States". Thirteen Soviet allies joined the boycott, making a total of fourteen nations that boycotted the Olympics. Iran and Albania were the only countries that boycotted both Moscow and Los Angeles. Romania and Yugoslavia were the only communist countries of Eastern Europe that participated in the 1984 Games. The Olympic boycotts were not viewed positively by many people, and have often been a historical lesson for preventing Olympic boycotts. There have been many calls to boycott Olympics such as the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, but none have materialized.