Philip Barker

Forty years ago this week, the deadline for entries to the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games officially closed.

Yet such was the turmoil facing the Olympic Movement in a time of political boycott, it was still by no means clear just how many nations would be there for the Opening Ceremony of the Games that July.

What was certain is that the Games would be the most politicised in a generation and the Opening Ceremony would be the most political in tone that there had ever been. 

Even the speech of then International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin had a clear political message.

It did not come as a surprise that the Ceremony would also be the most spectacular yet.

Huge choreographed displays were common in the Eastern Bloc nations. The wider world had been offered a glimpse at the 1979 Spartakiade, a huge Russian sports festival which had been opened up to competitors from other nations.

The build-up to Moscow 1980 had been overshadowed by a bitter campaign to boycott as a protest against the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. This was spearheaded by American President Jimmy Carter and supported by some politicians in Britain, Australia and West Germany.  

The IOC debated at length and agreed to change certain regulations. Killanin said they had "deleted the word national" wherever possible, which made it possible for teams to march under the Olympic flag or that of National Olympic Committees (NOCs). He later said that this had made it easier for some teams to take part.

In May, the NOCs of Europe gathered in Rome "in order to find means of ensuring full European participation at the forthcoming Games".

They underlined that this "cannot in any way be taken to imply acceptance of any ideology or political behaviour". 

The meeting included West Germany, ultimately absent from Moscow. It called for changes "designed to eliminate political pressures and all types of exploitation and give to the Olympic Movement a new impetus".

A scene from the Opening Ceremony of the Moscow 1980 Olympics ©Olympic Panorama
A scene from the Opening Ceremony of the Moscow 1980 Olympics ©Olympic Panorama

The NOCs undertook that "at all times and on all occasions the flag of the participating delegations will be the Olympic flag". The Olympic anthem and flag were to be used at medal ceremonies and the NOCs resolved to "confine their activities to purely sporting events".

In fact, at the Opening Ceremony matters were not quite as simple. A large Greek contingent entered behind sailing silver medallist Ilias Khatzipavlis holding the national flag. Austria, Finland, Iceland and Malta had also been part of the Rome meeting, but they too used their national flags.

The Australians were the first to deploy the Olympic flag. This was carried by sprinter Denise Boyd and swimmer Max Metzker in front of a large contingent. Andorra's entire team, two trap shooters, carried their Olympic flag.

British Olympic Association general secretary Dick Palmer marched alone but told news reporters: "I can think of many better things to do than walking around a track carrying a flag."

Ireland team manager Ken Ryan did the same. The Italians, French, Belgians and Danes decided not to march and red tracksuited volunteers carried Olympic flags on their behalf.

Most striking was the appearance of New Zealand modern pentathlete Brian Newth, carrying his NOC flag, a silver fern above Olympic Rings on a black background. The Spanish also used their red and gold NOC emblem on white, carried by canoeist Herminio Menendez.

Soviet television cameras offered a close-up of the bearer whenever an Olympic or NOC flag was used.

Preparations for the Opening Ceremony itself had begun long before. Amongst many Soviet publications to promote the Olympics was a booklet called Moscow's Red Carpet Welcome for 1980 Olympics.

This gave breathless details of the preparations for the Games and ceremonies, held under the motto "The youth of the Soviet Union greets the participants and guests of the 22nd Olympic Games".

The man in charge was "people's artist" Professor Iosif Tusmanov. He revealed it was planned in two parts and wrote: "Besides the athletes themselves, circus and variety actors and the spectators in their stands will play a very direct part in the proceedings. I won't say a word about what this role will be."

The "spectators" were in fact carefully selected. They sat opposite the tribune of honour, and used "flashcards" to produce giant images. A mosaic of the Soviet coat of arms was the first of many which included a depiction of the Parthenon in Greece, the Kremlin, the symbol of the Moscow 1980 Games and mascot Misha the Bear.

The Olympic Rings at the start of the Opening Ceremony of the Moscow 1980 Olympics ©Olympic Panorama
The Olympic Rings at the start of the Opening Ceremony of the Moscow 1980 Olympics ©Olympic Panorama

Proceedings began with the distinctive chimes of the Kremlin clock in Red Square relayed by loudspeakers. Trumpeters sounded the fanfare to greet Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.

Then, after the fanfare from Shostakovich's Festive Overture, chosen as the official theme of the Games, came the third movement of Tchaikovsky's symphony Pathetique, accompanying the opening cavalcade.

At its head, young men dressed in white and gold robes escorted a large three dimensional representation of the Olympic Rings. The official report described "a colourful procession in which youths and girls in Ancient Greek costumes rode around the arena in three chariots, symbolising continuity of the Olympic ideals of antiquity with those of the modern Games".

The parade of nations followed. After the huge Soviet team finally made their entrance, Killanin spoke. His words had a political message.

"I would like to welcome all the athletes and officials here today, especially those who have shown their complete independence to travel to compete, despite many pressures placed on them," he said.

He also offered a reminder: "I must repeat that these Games belong to the International Olympic Committee, and are allocated purely on the ability of the host city to organise them."

Brezhnev then opened the Games, before eight "Masters of Sport" goose-stepped into the stadium carrying the Olympic flag accompanied by 22 other athletes.

In those days, the ceremonial "Antwerp Flag" was handed over by the previous hosts at the opening. Young children with flowers crowded around as Sandra Henderson and Stephane Prefontaine, the youngsters who had lit the cauldron at the previous Games in Montreal, entered with the flag. Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau was prevented from attending because of the boycott.

Three-time Olympic triple jump champion Viktor Saneyev carried the Flame into the stadium and passed it to basketball gold medallist Sergei Belov who ran up what was described as a "live pathway".

The lighting official report of the Games said: "Before the eyes of the amazed spectators a pathway connecting the field with the Bowl of the Olympic Flame took shape above the heads of athletes."

This was made up of 170 components, assembled in about 15 seconds. It was a remarkable tour de force.

The cover of Soviet magazine Olympic Panorama shows the card mosaic below the Olympic cauldron ©Olympic Panorama
The cover of Soviet magazine Olympic Panorama shows the card mosaic below the Olympic cauldron ©Olympic Panorama

As the Flame was lit, the choir sang Ode to Sport, a cantata by Eduard Artemiev inspired by Pierre de Coubertin's own words. In Russian, the card montage displayed the words "Oh Sport you are Peace!"

After the formal part of the Ceremony, the athletes departed, leaving the field clear for the cultural performance.

Leonid Popov and Valeri Ryumin, cosmonauts on the Salyut 6 space station, then appeared on the screens with a message of greeting.

"Esteemed Olympians, through the portholes of our station we see Greece, motherland of the Olympics, and Moscow, where the cream of the Olympic Movement has gathered now," they said. "Let the Olympic Flame of friendship always burn, let rivalry be confined only to the sports field."

Then, as the flash cards depicted the sun, performers created the motif on the field. There followed dances by young people in the national costumes of the 15 republics.

Horse drawn troikas raced along the track and young gymnasts dressed as Misha the mascot danced across the field. In all, some 16,000 people took part.

Gymnasts from the "Trudoviye Reservy" sports society formed the five Olympic Rings on the field. This also included what were described as "four-tier live 'vases' in the middle of the rings". This type of display had been seen in Sofia at the 1977 Universiade.

"For all of us who took part in the dance suite, the pleasure we gave the spectators was our true reward," said Irina Mikhlina, a member of the Krasnoyarsk dance ensemble who danced in the "Friendship of the Peoples" sequence.

"I have never witnessed such an Opening Ceremony," said Ethiopia's 1968 marathon gold medallist Mamo Wolde afterwards.

It was described as "Busby Berkeley", or the Soviet Circus, and for the respected sports journalist Ian Wooldridge it was a "staggering displays of regional dancing and gymnastics, pitched at the highest cultural level which made Walt Disney look like a cheapskate".

Los Angeles 1984 Organising Committee President Peter Ueberroth admitted that the card displays had been "a marvellous demonstration of military discipline". 

"We knew we couldn’t match their stunts," he said.

In 1984, David Wolper, the Commissioner for Ceremonies in Los Angeles, was determined "to blow them away with one giant card trick". 

"Our stunt is going to make Moscow’s look like chopped liver," he claimed. 

It was proof, if needed, that Moscow's extravaganza had launched a new "arms race" for Opening Ceremonies.