1980 Olympics: British Athletic Excellence

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1980 Summer Games

Host: Moscow, The Soviet Union

Medal table winner: The Soviet Union



Held between July 19th and August 3rd, the 1980 games saw the Olympics held in a communist country for the very first time. Amidst the Cold War, tensions were effervescent when Moscow was selected over Los Angeles to stage the games. However, the latter was chosen to host four years later in order to calm already heightened strains.

Unfortunately, the games were undoubtedly tarnished by the decision of 64 nations to boycott the 1980 Olympics. Spearheaded by America’s choice to pull out, the sovereignties were protesting the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. As a result, athletes from a boycotting nation that wanted to compete did so under the Olympic flag as opposed the colours of their country.

Communist nations completed a white wash of the medal table with the hosts winning by 69 medals; a yawning lead. British athletes finished in ninth place, whilst not a single American turned up to the games. With just eighty nations fielding competitors, Moscow saw the lowest roster of athletes since the Melbourne games 24 years previously.

The games did, nonetheless, produce a number of memorable Olympic moments but the overcast of the Cold War undoubtedly went out of its way to taint the competition’s spirit and dignity.

Coe vs. Ovett

CoeTwo of Britain’s finest ever runners locked horns in Moscow; Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett’s famous rivalry proved one of the highlights of the games. The pair would contest the 800m and 1500m with the latter proving the preferred event of Ovett and the former taking prevalence for Coe.

The 800m proved the first clash with Ovett defying all the odds to usurp Coe and burst into the final straight with an unprecedented lead. Coe eventually fought back to bag the silver but he had lost his preferred distance in comprehensive fashion. Now the President of the IAAF, he refers to the incident as “the very worst 800 metres of a 20-year career.”

However, Coe had the chance for redemption in the 1500m but his rival was in electric form and was buoyed upon stealing the 800m gold. Not only did Ovett tell the press he would win the race but he boasted that he could smash the world record by over four seconds. His confidence proved his downfall though as Coe pulled off the improbable by stealing the victory.

Ovett had capitulated – only managing a bronze medal. In one of the most intriguing rivalries in Olympic history, the pair had won the wrong events by taking victory in the races they least preferred. It proved fitting that two sensational British runners both grabbed their taste of Olympic gold, even if they did so in bizarre, unexpected circumstances.

Carnage in the diving

Confusion consumed the diving calendar at the 1980 Olympics upon a series of baffling events that left the judges tearing their hair out. Soviet diver Aleksandr Portnov initially delayed his two and a half reverse summersault in the spring board final after the aquatic centre crowd burst in rapture over the men’s 1,500m swim event. However, he would be further delayed.

Upon stepping onto the board itself, Portnov was interrupted again as the crowd wildly celebrated the breaking of the world record by Russian swimmer Vladimir Salnikov. Yet because he had set foot on the board, he could not delay and subsequently crashed his dive in dramatic fashion. Eventually, Portnov was granted a re-dive but to great uproar.

East Germany’s Falk Hoffman then proceeded to jump on the band waggon, demanding a re-dive after supposedly being distracted by flashing cameras. In the end, the mayhem was unravelled with Portnov grabbing the gold medal but only after the melee of appeals that had scarred the competition. Mexico’s Carlos Giron took silver and Italy’s Giorgio Cagnotto sealed bronze.

Scot becomes fastest man on Earth

wellsIn the absence of American athletes, it proved a little-known Brit that bagged the crown of the ‘world’s fastest man’ in Moscow. Despite being engulfed by a world-class roster, Allan Wells was making a name for himself at the 1980 games. The Edinburgh-born sprinter sealed his place in the final in style, lowering the British record to an impressive 10.11s.

However, it was in the final that Wells showed the world his stripes. Despite executing most of his strength training within his own garage, the veteran was lining up against a plethora of blistering Caribbean athletes. Wells burst out of the blocks culpably but found himself in the middle of the pack after 60 metres, but still within check of the leader.

With just 20 metres to go, Wells burst through to the front and found himself crossing the line in virtual synchronicity with Cuba’s Silvio Leonard. The pair were awarded an identical time but Wells edged the gold, his chest revealed to have crossed the line millimetres before his Cuban rival on the photo finish.

Wells would then proceed to contest the 200m final, yet failed in his attempt to seal the sprint double. The Brit was no match for the legendary Pedro Mennea whom ensured the gold medal went to Italy. However, Wells’ achievement should not be underestimated and he remains the last white male to win an Olympic 100m title.

Soviet football flops

On home ground, with a team oozing with talent and a number of rivals absent from the competition, the Soviet Union were unanimous favourites to win the Olympic football title. However, under all the pressure, they capitulated on an unprecedented scale. Whilst the 1980 games were on the whole very successful for the hosts, they flopped in potentially their strongest sport.

Eventually winding up with a bronze medal, the Russians had succumbed to a gritty East German side in the quarterfinals. 95,000 spectators had crammed into the Vladimir Lenin Stadium but Wolf-Rüdiger Netz’s early strike saw them leave disappointed. However, German joy was short-lived as they suffered a 1-0 defeat to Czechoslovakia in the final, seeing the latter run away with the gold medal.

Other sports

nanOlympic legend Vladimir Salnikov made history on home soil in the swimming calendar. Aside from disrupting the diving, he became the first person in history to break the 15-minute barrier in the 1,500m freestyle (swimming’s equivalent of the 4-minute mile).

Romania enjoyed superb success in women’s gymnastic, spearheaded by the return of the mercurial Nadia Comaneci (pictured). The nation saw one of their gymnasts on the podium in every event with their super star bagging gold on the balance beam and floor exercise. Moscow would prove Comaneci’s last appearance as an Olympic athlete.

World records were falling in their drones during a superb weightlifting calendar. Incredibly, there were 18 senior world records, over 100 Olympic records and 108 national records set during an outrageous display of weightlifting talent in Russia.


Kobe Tong, YJA Senior Correspondent