Philip Barker

Forty years ago, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin was only a few weeks from retirement, but he found himself at the centre of a bitter Olympic crisis as the campaign to boycott the 1980 Moscow Olympics raged around him.

An official IOC biography concedes Lord Killanin’s eight years at the head of the Olympic Movement were "an extremely difficult period." During his term of office, he was beset by two major boycotts and a bitter dispute involving the two Chinas. The pressures he faced took a personal toll when he was struck with heart problems.

All things considered, Lord Killanin may well go down as the unluckiest of all IOC Presidents.

He had been an Olympic official in Ireland and joined the IOC in 1952. In the same year, his Presidential predecessor, Avery Brundage, had taken office.

Brundage, a millionaire American businessman, was often a controversial and autocratic figure. He remained at the IOC helm for 20 years and was a vehement defender of strict amateur regulations when others felt they were outdated. As time went on, critics became increasingly unhappy with his stance over South Africa.

By the late 1960s, a significant group felt that change was needed.

Lord Killanin was sounded out by American member Douglas Roby and Kenya’s Reg Alexander, who asked him to run against Brundage in 1968. Lord Killanin decided to bide his time.

In his memoirs he wrote of Brundage: "I think it is true to say that if he had not seen trouble ahead, it would have been difficult to dislodge him from the Presidency in 1972."

Lord Killanin became International Olympic Committee President in 1972 ©Getty Images
Lord Killanin became International Olympic Committee President in 1972 ©Getty Images

Brundage decided to stand down as he approached his 85th birthday. This time Lord Killanin did stand for the leadership against the French aristocrat Jean de Beaumont and pledged that if elected "he would work in the spirit of the Olympic movement."

The vote took place in Munich. Lord Killanin won by 39 to 19, although the figures were not made public at the time.

There was no time for celebration. Little more than a fortnight later, a terrorist attack on the Israelis in the Olympic Village cast an indelible shadow over the Munich Games.

Lord Killanin had not even formally taken office. Olympic protocol dictated that his Presidential term began as the Games closed.

In a short ceremony in Lausanne, Mayor Georges-André Chevallaz told him: "Here is the key which is heavy. Very heavy. But we will assist you in your work by providing a haven of tranquility, which represents the Château de Vidy."

Lord Killanin remained at his home in Dublin while IOC director Monique Berlioux was in charge of the day-to-day office.

Their tranquility was soon shattered by a telegram from the Organising Committee of the 1976 Winter Olympic Games in Denver in Colorado, conveying news of a referendum which opposed the staging of the Games. It said the Organising Committee "has determined that it has no choice but to withdraw invitation to hold Games in Denver."

It turned out to be the least of the problems because Innsbruck quickly stepped and hosted a successful event.

The preparations for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal were soon to give more cause for concern. Construction was dogged by strikes and weather delays. Work on the Athletes’ village began very late and although this project was completed, the main Olympic stadium remained unfinished as the Games began.

Boycotts were a major headache for Lord Killanin ©Getty Images
Boycotts were a major headache for Lord Killanin ©Getty Images

"The Montreal problems never seemed to go away," lamented Lord Killanin.

A rugby union tour of South Africa by the New Zealanders was the touchpaper for a widespread boycott of the Games by African nations.

The Nigerians announced their withdrawal as "an eloquent protest against New Zealand’s blatant disregard for human dignity, by its avowed and open support and collaboration with racist South Africa in sport."

Kenyan Foreign Minister James Osogo also told the world: "The Government and the people of Kenya hold the view that principles are more precious than medals."

When Lord Killanin stood alongside the Queen at the opening ceremony, neither knew which teams would arrive. Some 20 countries stayed away and some 700 competitors were affected.

Less than two months before, the Canadian government had also announced that it was unwilling to accept the team from "Nationalist China" - now known as Chinese Taipei. In 1976 they were still called "Republic of China" in the Olympic alphabet.

Some team members had already arrived on other passports. Lord Killanin’s IOC tried to find a solution which stipulated that the team should be known as "Taiwan" and compete under an Olympic flag, but this was rejected by officials from Taipei.

In the aftermath of Montreal, Lord Killanin set up a commission to try "investigate the 'two Chinas' situation as it affects the IOC." It had long been on his personal radar. As a reporter he had covered the Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930s. He had subsequently advocated Olympic inclusion for the Chinese mainland.

"Our only regret is that for political reasons, 800 million Chinese are no longer in the Olympic movement, but I hope that by putting the common denominator of sport above political conflict, we may see them back in our ranks again."

Lord Killanin, centre, inspects a model ahead of Moscow 1980 ©Olympic Panorama
Lord Killanin, centre, inspects a model ahead of Moscow 1980 ©Olympic Panorama

He set up a three-man fact-finding commission, and later travelled himself to meet the sporting leaders in the two Chinas. He invited them to make presentations at the 1979 IOC Session in Montevideo, insisting "the China question was the main topic."

Both sides made presentations. A decision was taken "to re-integrate the Chinese Olympic Committee" in Beijing and to "maintain recognition of the Olympic Committee whose headquarters are located in Taipei."

Lord Killanin described it as "my greatest satisfaction", although not until 1984 did both take part in the same Games.

Moscow 1980 now loomed on the horizon. Lord Killanin visited the city alongside IOC technical director Harry Banks. They found venue construction well advanced and, in 1979, all seemed positive as the multi-sport Soviet Union National Games or Spartakiade went ahead. The American television network NBC had even established its Moscow office for the Games.

But in December 1979, Soviet tanks began rolling into Afghanistan. Very soon, American President Jimmy Carter demanded an Olympic boycott.

At the IOC session held before the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, United States Secretary of State Cyrus Vance made a politically charged speech and even forgot to actually open the Session. Lord Killanin called it "the most embarrassing ceremony ever held" - but it helped unite the IOC behind him.

"I feel these Games have proved that we do something to contribute to the mutual understanding of the world. If we can all come together it will be for a better world and we shall avoid the holocaust which may well be upon us if we are not careful," he said as the Games ended.

Jimmy Carter was among the world leaders Lord Killanin had to negotiate with ©Getty Images
Jimmy Carter was among the world leaders Lord Killanin had to negotiate with ©Getty Images

In the weeks which followed, he met Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev in Moscow. An IOC communique reported: "A frank discussion on the critical situation which has arisen."

A few days later, Lord Killanin was with US President Carter. "They had a full discussion on the future of the Olympic Movement," said the IOC bulletin, although Lord Killanin later said of Carter, "I don’t think he was informed at all."

Lord Killanin’s IOC altered regulations which "made it possible for each National Olympic Committee to use during the Olympic ceremonies the flag and anthem of its choice and thus assist the athletes for whom the games are held."

Although the US, Canada, West Germany and Japan were among a sizeable contingent which boycotted Moscow, Lord Killanin welcomed "especially those who have travelled to compete despite the pressures placed upon them."

When the Games were over, Lord Killanin made his final speech. "I implore the sportsmen of the world, unite in peace before a holocaust descends."

During his time in office his administration laid the ground for the eventual admission of professionals to an "open" Olympics. He also produced a book about the history of the Olympic Games with the respected Olympic journalist John Rodda.

"I felt a book on the wide ranging nature of the Olympic movement would be a considerable asset," he said.

Lord Killanin could scarcely have imagined that his own presidency would turn out to be one of the most tumultuous in the entire history of the Olympic movement.