The Forgotten Countries of the 1980 Boycott

The 1980 Olympic boycott is often branded as an event that “spared” women’s artistic gymnastics (WAG). There are two main reasons for this.

Reason #1: The 1980 Olympic boycott is widely branded as a failure. Most of the countries that boycotted had minor Olympic programs such as Barbados, Bahamas, Belize, and the Cayman Islands. At the time the bulk of the Olympic power structure rested in Europe and only three European countries joined the boycott.

Reason #2: The Eastern Bloc had a staggering win rate from 1952-1976 winning close to 99% of all Olympic medals. With the previous dominance in mind, the 1980 Olympics can easily be touted as a competition that didn’t lose a single Olympic medalist in WAG.

Reason #1

Neither of these reasons are technically inaccurate, but they do paint a misleading picture. Starting with reason #1, while it is true that only a small amount of countries with major Olympic programs boycotted in 1980, every single one of them had strong WAG programs. Women’s gymnastics at the 1980 Olympics is in the interesting paradox of being completely spared in regards to its top-ranked programs, while getting absolutely gutted everywhere else.

There were seven Eastern Bloc programs led by the Soviet Union. Of the seven highest ranking WAG programs from outside the Eastern Bloc, all seven of them joined the 1980 Olympic boycott. It is actually a statistical anomaly that WAG was hit so hard with the entirety of its non-Eastern Bloc programs joining the boycott.

Numerous nations that didn’t officially boycott were only reluctant participants. They either sent smaller delegations than usual, or refused to fill the spots of boycotting nations. In some cases they had boycotted on a sport-by-sport basis. In other cases they didn’t aggressively pursue qualification spots. Two countries that did this were the Netherlands and France. Both countries competed under the Olympic flag and had athlete delegations that were smaller in 1980 than they had been in 1976 by a significant margin. Whereas France did have a male gymnast, neither country sent any female gymnasts.

When all was said and done, the strongest WAG programs from outside the Eastern Bloc in attendance were #16 Great Britain, #18 Spain, and #20 Australia. But they had only sent individuals, not a full team. Technically speaking, North Korea was the only nation from outside the Eastern Bloc to send a full WAG team.

With #16 Great Britain being the strongest program in attendance from outside the Eastern Bloc, that represents a significant number of gymnasts from the middle and lower levels of the sport who lost out on the Olympic experience. Gymnastics like Romi Kessler of Switzerland who rose to become the strongest gymnast from Western Europe in her era. Gymnasts such as Elfi Schlegel who managed to win a medal at the 1980 World Cup. Countries like West Germany that in 1983, would be the first from Western Europe to qualify a gymnast to an apparatus finals. And countries like Japan that was a major gymnastics market and responsible for the very leotard Elena Davydova made famous at the 1980 Olympics.

Elfi Schlegel at a ceremony honoring Canadian athletes who missed the Olympics as a result of the 1980 Olympic boycott.

Reason #2

As previously mentioned, the Eastern Bloc had dominated WAG from 1952-1976 and after the 1980 and 1984 boycotts, performed fairly well against the 1988 Olympic field. Giving the impression that they would have dominated a fully attended Olympics in 1980 and 1984. The Eastern Bloc was strong enough to win just about every WAG medal in an Olympic games, but starting in the 1980s the Eastern Bloc was losing its monopoly on the sport.

Had the 1980 Olympics been fully attended, it likely would have been one of the most competitive Olympics of the Cold War between Eastern Europe and the rest of the world. Eastern Europe would have walked away with nearly every medal as they normally do, but the chances China and/or the United States manages to play spoiler and take an apparatus medal was significant. Countries from outside the Eastern Bloc managed to win a medal at:

-1978 World Championships: Marcia Frederick on bars and Kathy Johnson on Floor

-1979 World Championships: Ma Yanhong on Bars

-1981 World Championships: China (Team Medal), Ma Yanhong on Bars, Julianne McNamara on Bars, Tracee Talavera on Beam, and Wu Jiani on Beam.

-1982 World Cup: Wu Jiani on Beam

In the late 1970s both China and the United States had crashed onto the scene with a bang. The 1980 Olympic boycott occurred right in the middle of the 1978-1982 era where the competition between the Eastern Bloc and China/United States was the toughest it had ever been. Given that China and the United States combined to win at least one medal in every major competition from 1978-1982, they would have been serious challengers for at least one medal at the 1980 Olympics.

Ma Yanhong

So while Elena Davydova’s win was absolutely legitimate, there is a reasonable chance an Eastern Bloc gymnast has an apparatus medal that would have gone to someone else had the boycott not occurred. That is, barring any judging shenanigans that the Eastern Bloc would have deployed to defend themselves against the United States and China.

The Eastern Bloc absolutely would have dominated the 1980 Olympics had China and the United States been present, but 1980 marked a new era where the days of Eastern Europe being expected to win every single medal were over. And I must stress that between the United States and China, it was China who was the most likely to medal thanks to the success of Ma Yanhong, Wu Jiani, and the team medal they won at the 1981 World Championships.

So while the 1980 Olympic boycott is widely portrayed from the perspective of the American program, it was China that paid the highest price in WAG. And while I wouldn’t classify China as a “forgotten” country in the WAG power structure, their role in 1980 doesn’t get talked about as much as it should.

Elfi Schlegel at the 1980 World Cup.

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