“Iron Lady” Thatcher’s role in rattling 1980 Moscow Olympics revealed

Today, Britain’s National Archives released top-secret documents from around the time of the Cold War that help explain why Margaret Thatcher was dubbed “The Iron Lady”.

­In 1980, a geopolitical game of high stakes was being played out in Afghanistan between the Western powers and the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, much to the consternation of then-UK Prime Minister Lady Thatcher, a different sort of game was taking place miles away in the Russian capital.

Just as the Soviet military machine was settling into the inhospitable land of Afghanistan for the long haul, athletes from around the world – despite a boycott by some nations – were descending on Moscow for the 1980 Olympic Games, the first (and so far only) Olympics to be held in Eastern Europe.

According to newly released top-secret documents published today, this turn of events did not please the Conservative government of Baroness Thatcher.

Thatcher applied undue pressure on the British Olympics Association (BOA) not to participate in the 1980 Moscow Olympics as a means of protesting the Soviet invasion.

In a series of four letters to the BOA, Thatcher said it would be "against British interests and wrong" for British athletes to compete in the Games.

In one letter to Sir Denis Follows, the then chairman of the BOA, Mrs. Thatcher argued that attending the event would not serve British interests.

"The Games will serve the propaganda needs of the Soviet government,” she said. "I remain firmly convinced that it is neither in our national interest nor in the wider Western interest for Britain to take part in Games in Moscow.”

In another letter she wrote, "As a sporting event, the Games cannot now satisfy the aspirations of our sportsmen and women….British attendance in Moscow can only serve to frustrate the interests of Britain."

She added that "medals won at Moscow will be of inferior worth and the ceremonies a charade," due to the boycotting of the event, and that “the Games will not be worthy of the name Olympics.”

At one point, the Thatcher government lobbied hard to have the International Olympic Committee switch locations from the Soviet Union. There was even a suggestion to deny a request by the Russian airline Aeroflot to allow an extra 18 charter flights for spectators.

Not everybody, however – and especially the many athletes who had trained hard for many years for their shot at gold – shared Thatcher’s enthusiasm for boycotting the Moscow event. Ultimately, it was the decision of the individual British athletes if they would participate or not.

British runner Sebastian Coe decided to compete, and ended up winning the gold medal in the 1500 meters against fellow Englishman Steve Ovett in what has been described as one of the most famous races in Olympic history.

In addition to Coe's victory in the 1500m, Ovett took gold in the 800m, Allan Wells won the 100m, Daley Thompson the decathlon and Duncan Goodhew the 100m breaststroke.

The 1980 British Olympic team took home a total of 21 medals, including five golds.

It seems the Americans and British were of one mind when it came to initiating the Olympic boycott. On January 20, 1980, then-US President Jimmy Carter sent Thatcher notice of his intention to announce a US boycott of the Games, although the idea had already been discussed by her cabinet.

Carter's letter, addressed to the US Olympic committee, stated: "I cannot support United States participation in the summer Olympic Games in Moscow, the capital city of a nation whose invading military forces are occupying Afghanistan."

Alan Brooke Turner, a senior diplomat at the British embassy in Moscow, sent a cable in July describing the impact of the boycott, which suggested it had fallen short of the desired result: "Despite the fact that numbers have had to be made up in some sports…there have been enough contests of excitement and note to demonstrate that the Soviet authorities can organize a major sports occasion like the Olympics and organize it well."

The release of the 30-year-old secret documents from the era of “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher provides insight not only on the past, but on the present state of international affairs.

Today, it is not the Soviet Union that is fighting a vicious war against the Mujahideen in the mountain passes of Afghanistan, but rather a US-led coalition of NATO countries, in co-operation with the Afghan military.

And as it was for the Soviet Union, victory in the “graveyard of empires” remains an elusive goal; the coalition has entered its tenth year of military operations against the Taliban, while the Soviets gave up the battle against the Mujahideen after nine years.

US President Barack Obama has promised to start withdrawing his 100,000 troops by July, 2011.

Meanwhile, on the battlefield of athletic dreams, Russia is scoring some of its most momentous victories.

Russia is preparing to host the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, while it recently beat out a field of tough competition, England included, to host the 2018 World Cup.

Although the Iron Lady would certainly have expressed some irritation at not having won the World Cup hosting rights, she would probably approve of the changes that have come about on the world stage, many as a result of her own truly Olympian efforts.

Robert Bridge, RT