The 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow were boycotted in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. Then–U.S. president Jimmy Carter announced the boycott in February 1980, and Canada and dozens of other countries soon followed suit. In his state of the union address that year, Carter made the case against the Soviet war:
“The vast majority of nations on Earth have condemned this latest Soviet attempt to extend its colonial domination of others and have demanded the immediate withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Muslim world is especially and justifiably outraged by this aggression against an Islamic people. No action of a world power has ever been so quickly and so overwhelmingly condemned. But verbal condemnation is not enough. The Soviet Union must pay a concrete price for their aggression.”
Part of the price the U.S. and its allies imposed was the Olympic boycott, which was explained as a protest in support of Afghanistan’s right to self-determination and independence, which the Soviets had egregiously violated when their tanks rolled across the border in December 1979. A decade of Soviet occupation resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Afghans and the displacement of millions.
Of course, the U.S. was not a neutral observer in that conflict. According to a 1998 interview with French newsmagazine the Nouvel Observateur, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was then Carter’s national security adviser, boasted that they helped lure the Soviets into invading. For years, they armed and helped finance the anti-Soviet armed resistance, tending to favour the most ruthless and extremist elements of the insurgency—the fundamentalists who still plague Afghan political life.
Many of Canada’s athletes were bitterly disappointed in 1980, but our country’s authorities assured them that the rights of the people of Afghanistan were worth the sacrifice of their athletic ambitions.
Thirty years later, it is the United States, Canada, and the other NATO countries that are occupying Afghanistan. Instead of a boycott, the Vancouver 2010 Olympics are being used to promote militarism in general and Canada’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan in particular. Who will make these invading countries “pay a concrete price for their aggression”?
For instance, a disproportionate number of Canadian Forces members, 200, and their families were to participate in the torch relay, whose route involved 14 military bases. It is widely expected that the opening ceremonies will tout Canada’s role with NATO in Afghanistan.
Long before the disastrous Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the old British Empire tried and failed three times to subdue the Afghans before finally withdrawing its armies. As Afghan dissident member of parliament Malalai Joya has pointed out on her visits to Canada, “The Afghan people want peace, and history teaches that we always reject occupation and foreign domination.”
Alas, today’s war is evidence that the lessons of this history go unlearned or unheeded. Once again countless Afghan lives, as well as the lives of NATO soldiers, have been sacrificed in vain.
The Canadian government claims to support the call for an “Olympic truce”, yet in Afghanistan aerial bombings, night raids, and other forms of collective punishment will continue each day of the Games. The Olympics Charter states that the Games seek to “promote peace”, with the goal of “encouraging the establishment of a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity”. And yet the Canadian government is using the Games to promote its warmaking.
Stephen Harper claims to promote democracy abroad, yet he has prorogued Parliament—suspending the basic functioning of Canada’s democratic institutions—in order to avoid scrutiny over Canada’s complicity in the torture of Afghan detainees.
Indeed, just like in Moscow in 1980, the host governments of the 2010 Olympics have curtailed free speech and restricted civil liberties, and the Canadian government is participating in an illegal and destructive invasion of Afghanistan—and it will do its best not to draw attention to this bit of Olympic history.
Let’s hope that the media gives some airtime to this historical parallel, lest the Games become just another prime-time venue to uncritically tout Canada’s military engagements abroad.
Derrick O’Keefe is the cochair of the Canadian Peace Alliance.