Thursday, March 8, 2012

Shattered Hopes: Canada's Boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games by Sheila Hurtig Robertson

In 1980, the United States announced that it would boycott the Olympic Games that were being held in Moscow as a protest against the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. It was soon announced that Canada would be joining the boycott. For the athletes who had been working towards this event for years, the decision was heartbreaking, hurtful, and devastating. Some athletes focused on attending the Olympics in 1984 (an event marked by a Soviet-led boycott of the US-hosted games), some continued on as coaches and advisers, while others left their sport altogether. Decades later, the emotions that the athletes, coaches, and officials left are still clearly evident as they look back at the Olympic dream that never was.

Since I became interested in learning about the Olympics, I have known about the 1980 and 1984 boycotts as facts on a page; I had not stopped to consider what it must have been like for the people at the time. Similarly, I had not thought of in terms of a Canadian context: the 1980 boycott followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics and came just before Calgary was announced as the host city for the 1988 games. It is almost impossible to imagine Canada not sending a team to the next winter Olympics after Vancouver; the momentum that comes from building a strong national team would completely disappear. The lack of communication (and clear communication) in 1980 is almost unthinkable today, too. And the timing - many of the Olympic qualifying events were held after the announcement of the boycott.  This analogy might strike some as going too far, but while reading many of the accounts, I couldn't help but think of a mother who gives birth to a baby that she knows has already died when hearing about the athletes who had to go through with the Olympic Trials after they knew there was not going to be an Olympic Team. The loss that many of them speak about strikes that deep. Even for those who had previously been at an Olympics (or would attend a later one), the experience of missing out on the 1980 games drastically changed the course of their sporting lives. It was fascinating to read the different interpretations of what had happened, each coloured by the individual's perspective and memory. The Olympic Team event in Toronto (a dinner and medal presentation for the athletes and coaches followed by a Gordon Lightfoot concert), for example, is remembered by different people as a nice gesture, as too little too late, an exclusive event not open to all athletes, and as a meaningful ceremony. The frustration that comes from now viewing the boycott as a meaningless gesture (particularly when other trade and sport sanctions were not invoked) makes the situation difficult to understand. In many of the interviews, it's clear that vague threats to boycott the 2008 Olympics were present in the minds of the athletes, but it is difficult to picture a boycott of the same magnitude now that the Olympics (and amateur sport in general) occupy a different place in the TV and economic world. The stories collected in this volume tell a story that has too long been silent. This is recommended reading for any fan of Canadian or Olympic sports.

I received an advance review copy from NetGalley courtesy of Iguana Books.

See more about Shattered Hopes at Iguana Books

Read it with:
Inside the Olympics by Nick Hunter
Inside the Olympics by Richard Pound
Taking the Lead: Strategies and Solutions from Female Coaches by Sheila Hurtig Robertson

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