Scene from the opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympic Games, 1980. The small New Zealand team marched behind a black flag with a silver fern rather than the traditional flag.
On Christmas Eve 1979 the Soviet Union entered Afghanistan to prop up the sympathetic government it had helped install in Kabul eight months earlier. In retaliation, US President Jimmy Carter and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher instigated a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The boycott was larger than that led by black African nations in 1976 and was more damaging to New Zealand's athletes. New Zealand was among the 80 countries eventually represented at Moscow but with a much diminished team and without many, if not all, of its medal hopefuls.
As early as January 1980 Robert Muldoon's government exerted pressure on the Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association to heed calls to boycott the Games. The Association initially delayed accepting the Soviet Union's invitation but by mid-April had named a full Olympic team of over 100. In response Cabinet voted that there would be no official government presence or Olympic brochure, and that public servants would not be granted special leave to attend. The latter had a significant impact on some athletes. Although they could still apply for annual leave, some were told they would lose their jobs if they attended the Olympics. Others were hauled in front of their department head or minister and advised of the government's position.
There was also indirect pressure on athletes and their associations. Many associations feared losing future government funding or the withdrawal of sponsorship money. The public appeared to support the government's position and some responded with abuse and obscene phone calls to individual athletes. Following indirect death threats against athletes from the unknown ‘Patriotic New Zealanders Organisation', the police advised remaining team members on what to do with ‘suspect mail'.
The Yachting Federation withdrew from the Games prior to the Cabinet decision and by the end of May all that remained of the Olympic team were canoeists Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson and Geoff Walker, and Brian Newth, who was competing in the modern pentathlon. Rather than marching behind the national flag at the opening ceremony the small team walked behind a black flag with a silver fern. One American journalist mistakenly suggested the black flag was a symbol of the New Zealand's protest against Soviet invention in Afghanistan. He was quickly corrected by an Australian journalist who advised that black was ‘traditional rather than a protest'.
Among the athletes to miss out was the star from 1976, John Walker. His great rival in the 1500 metres, Filbert Bayi, who had himself been unable to compete in Montreal because of a boycott, commented that he missed his old sparring partner. But he added, ‘Now he knows what I felt like in 1976. It's the same situation in reverse'.
It was not just athletes who missed out. Up to 200 New Zealanders travelled to Moscow
for the Olympics but few saw the Kiwi team in action. A
leader of one tour group advised that prior to the Games groups had
organised tickets for track and field, swimming and rowing. They had returned
tickets for canoeing and modern pentathlon, which could not be retrieved when
it became clear which events New
Zealand was competing in.
Modern pentathlete Brian Newth, who competed in the equestrian, fencing, shooting, swimming and cross country running, had problems with his pistol and finished 14th out of 40 competitors. The pressure came on the canoeists to prevent New Zealand's only medal drought since 1948. They too faced difficulties when one of the boats they arranged to lease from Britain for financial reasons arrived without one seat. The following day the Russians showed up with two brand new boats. The canoeists didn't win a medal but made three out of their four finals. At the following Games canoeists, Ian Ferguson, Alan Thompson, Paul MacDonald and Grant Bramwell, won four gold medals.
Many athletes were bitterly disappointed at not being able to compete in Moscow, particularly when they discovered that the boycott had little effect. Some sources were quoted as saying that all the protest achieved was a ‘tit for tat' Soviet-led boycott of Los Angeles in 1984.