Philip Barker ©ITG

Forty years ago today, the most politically charged Olympics of modern times began when the distinctive chimes of the Kremlin were relayed to the Lenin Stadium by loudspeaker.

A Presidential fanfare greeted the arrival of Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and International Olympic Committee (IOC) counterpart Lord Killanin.

Many regarded it as a triumph that the Games went ahead at all, because there had been a bitter campaign to boycott them. 

Yet, in the week after they opened, one foreign journalist was threatened with expulsion after Soviet authorities were offended by what he had written.

Not everyone had been well disposed towards an Olympic Games in Moscow, even when they had been awarded in 1974. Politicians and human rights groups had called for a boycott in protest at alleged violations and the treatment of dissidents.

In the wake of the tribulations over Montreal 1976, the IOC were relieved to see preparations proceeding smoothly for the Moscow Games.

In 1979, the Soviets even opened their national multi-sport festival to athletes from across the world. Known as the "Spartakiade", the event boasted more competitors than the Olympics. It was effectively a gigantic test event and was regarded as a great success.

Don Ohlmeyer, who was in charge of  television coverage for NBC, suggested: "As things are going now, I have every reason to believe that the 1980 Olympic telecasts will not only be the biggest ever, but the best as well."

Moscow 1980 Organising Committee supremo Ignati Novikov insisted they had "set themselves the aim of creating the most favourable conditions for contact among the representatives of the youth of different countries of contributing to the improvement of the international situation and the consolidation of world peace".

But in December 1979, Soviet forces moved into Afghanistan in what was seen as an invasion by the West.

The Opening Ceremony of the heavily-boycotted Moscow 1980 Olympics ©Getty Images
The Opening Ceremony of the heavily-boycotted Moscow 1980 Olympics ©Getty Images

Within days, American President Jimmy Carter demanded that unless the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, "the Games be moved to an alternate site, or postponed, or cancelled".

The United States did not attend the Moscow Olympics and discouraged others from doing so. Canada, West Germany and Japan all joined the boycott. 

The decision denied Olympic participation in 1980 to both current IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita. Although both won gold at other Games, their "lost Olympics" still has a sharp resonance.

Despite the best efforts of political leaders, athletes from Australia, France, Great Britain, Italy and New Zealand were among the 81 nations who did send a team.

Many critics had drawn parallels with the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. There were even similarities in the Olympic Torch Relay to Moscow, which followed a predominantly land-based and more or less direct route to the host city which meant it was very similar in character to that seen in 1936.

By the time it arrived in Moscow, the Torch had travelled 4,970 kilometres.

On the day of the official opening, Torchbearers made their way through the city streets of Moscow. The official film shows them accompanied by escort runners who moved precisely in step.

The Opening Ceremony in the stadium began with a dramatic procession of chariots and performers dressed in costumes from the days of antiquity, as music from Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony resounded around.

"With this parade of majestic chariots, we pay tribute to the ancient land of the Hellenes, we pay homage to noble sport which knows no boundaries of the eternal and wonderful spirit of the Olympic Games," it was said.                      

The parade of nations which followed was politically charged in that countries chose to use Olympic rather than national flags. A change in regulations had made this possible.

When IOC President Lord Killanin took to the dais, his speech had an edge.

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

The Games were opened by Brezhnev.

"Esteemed Mr President of the International Olympic Committee, athletes of the world, dear guests, comrades," he said.

"I proclaim the Games of the XXII Olympiad of the modern era open." 

A protester calls for the boycott of Moscow 1980 ©Getty Images
A protester calls for the boycott of Moscow 1980 ©Getty Images

In fact, by adding the additional greetings, Brezhnev had exceeded the limit to his speech laid down by the Olympic Charter.

He spoke from a Presidential box which did not have bulletproof glass. The distinguished sports journalist Ian Wooldridge recalled that the only day journalists were not searched was the day Brezhnev attended.

"What intrigued me was that there was no protection at the front, and crouched before him were minimally 150 unsearched photographers mostly armed with those long lensed cameras that looked precisely like bazookas," he said in a BBC broadcast later.

In his report for the Daily Mail newspaper, Wooldridge wrote: "The one thing you could easily have done from my seat was to have shot Leonid Brezhnev stone dead."

Later in the week, Moscow 1980 vice-president Vladimir Popov was reported by Reuters to have warned "that if it or other stories were found to insult the dignity of the host country, Soviet organisers would appeal to the IOC to take 'most decisive measures' against the journalists involved".

Wooldridge was threatened with expulsion. Unbeknownst to him, Great Britain's team commandant Sir Denis Follows had been summoned by Soviet officials but told them: "If he or any other journalist is expelled, I shall withdraw the entire British team from the Games."

For many, the highlight of the Ceremony was the arrival of the Flame. It was carried into the stadium by three-time triple jump gold medallist Viktor Saneyev.

He handed to basketball player Sergei Belov, a gold medallist from the never to be forgotten 1972 final when the USSR beat the USA. Whether the choice was politically motivated will never be known, but it was certainly the most spectacular way to light a cauldron yet seen at the Games.

It captured the imagination of Larisa Latynina, the nine-time gymnastics gold medallist who presumably had seen most that the Olympic Games had to offer.

"To me there seemed something out of the ordinary about it, the result probably of having been involved in a great undertaking as one of the thousands upon thousands of Muscovites who worked without sparing their efforts for the good of the Moscow Olympics," she said.

In modern times, the lighting of the cauldron forms the climax to the opening of the Games but, back in 1980, the Ceremony continued with gymnast Nikolai Andrianov and wrestling judge Aleksandr Medved speaking the official Olympic oaths. Then, the assembled athletes left the arena and a spectacular display of dance and gymnastics followed.

Air corridors above Moscow had been cleared for the Ceremony. This did not affect the message from cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin, who offered a greeting from the Salyut 6 space station.

"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. 

"The continents you represent are flashing past us down below. Let the Olympic Flame of friendship be always bright on earth.

"Let people have rivalry only in sports arenas."

A cartoon about the Olympics which appeared in Soviet Weekly ©Boris Efimov
A cartoon about the Olympics which appeared in Soviet Weekly ©Boris Efimov

The Russian word for peace was displayed by flashcards on numerous occasions as part of what the official report called "a huge coloured picture screen" in the eastern stands. Four-and-a-half thousand athletes formed a total of 174 mosaic-like pictures "that succeeded one another according to the scenario".

The symbol of the Games was also prominent in this display. It was "a silhouette which characterises Moscow's architecture", organisers said, with a red star and a miniature image of the stars of the Kremlin glowing above the capital at night.

The five parallel lines rising upwards seemed to be five sports tracks, indicating the unity of the sports movement, and the five continents joining together in their desire for peace and progress.

The design was by Latvian Vladimir Arsentyev, who was chosen from some 26,000 entries submitted in a worldwide competition.

The mascot Misha had been decided by a poll organised by a Soviet television programme called In the Animal Kingdom. Viewers were asked to choose between a hare, a stoat, a squirrel, an eagle, a badger, a grouse and even a cockerel. However, the overwhelming popular choice was the bear cub.

The design proved so popular that many Russians still fondly remembered him when the 2014 Winter Olympics were held in Sochi.

The first gold medal of the Moscow Games went to free pistol shooter Aleksandr Melentyev who spoke of "the keen sense of competition and a special sense of responsibility". 

"I felt it keenly because this is my first Olympics and it was in my country," he said.

Switzerland's track cyclist Robert Dill-Bundi won the 4,000m individual pursuit. He set a world record in the semi-final round to beat Denmark's Hans Henrik Orsted and in the final overcame Alain Bondue of France. 

"I always had command of the race and by the three kilometre mark, I felt he was stuck, so I felt certain I would win," he told newspapers in Switzerland.

After his victory Dill Bundi fell to his knees. "I loved that track, that's why I kissed it," he said.

The communist newspaper Soviet Weekly published a picture of the medal ceremony with the caption "internationalism typified".

It made no mention of the fact that all three medal-winning countries had chosen not to use their national flags, so three Olympic flags were raised together. Whenever this happened, the local television cameras tried to find spectators waving national flags.

"Naturally, the Soviet television cameras did not dwell on the teams that had left their national flags at home," wrote Ernie Trory a left wing British apologist for the Soviet regime.

At the Olympic pool, Vladimir Salnikov was the first in history to break the 15 minute barrier in the 1,500m freestyle. He lowered the world record by an astounding 4.13 seconds.

The East German women won all but two of the swimming gold medals available to them, but this masked a sinister truth which did not come to light for another decade, when the extent of state sponsored doping was finally revealed.

There was controversy at the gymnastics when Nadia Comăneci missed out on gold ©Getty Images
There was controversy at the gymnastics when Nadia Comăneci missed out on gold ©Getty Images

The gymnastics competition was less than fraternal. Romania's Nadia Comăneci had won the individual all-around title in 1976 but, in Moscow, lost out on gold in the final rotation. 

There was a 28-minute delay while the Romanians disputed the marks but in the end Yelena Davydova of the Soviet Union won gold. Romanian coach Bela Karolyi fumed that "an arrangement had been made to give low scores to Nadia".

In the second week, all eyes were on the Lenin Stadium.

An African boycott had denied Miruts Yifter of Ethiopia his chance to win in Montreal at the 1976 Games but, before Moscow, he had established his credentials with 5,000m and 10,000m victories at the first two Athletics World Cups.

In the 10,000m in Moscow, he did not wear the colours of Ethiopia but the bright orange Africa vest. It proved a good omen as he came home for gold and he then won the 5,000m for good measure.  

He was dubbed "Yifter the Shifter" by newspaper men, although it later transpired that the correct transcription of his name was Muruse Yefter.

Many relished the battles between Sebastian Coe, who was expected to win over 800m, and his fellow Briton Steve Ovett, the European 1,500m champion. Both were expected to win their favoured event but it did not turn out that way.

In the 800m final, television commentator David Coleman memorably described Ovett as having "those blue eyes like chips of ice" as he came round the bend and into the home straight ahead of his great rival.

The following week came the 1,500m final and a chance for redemption for Coe. He seized it with both feet.

There were debates on how many of the events had been affected by the boycott. There was little doubt that the 400m hurdles suffered to a greater extent than any other race. 

Reigning Olympic champion and world record holder Ed Moses had not been beaten since 1977 and most are convinced he would have won again, closely followed by West Germany's European champion Harald Schmid. 

Neither were allowed to compete in Moscow and in their absence Volker Beck of East Germany won gold. It was significant that the winning time was the slowest since the 1964 Olympics.

Moses did at least have the opportunity to compete again on an Olympic stage but, for some, the chance had gone.

Earlier this year, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee chief executive Sarah Hirshland paid tribute to all who had been denied the chance to compete in Moscow. 

"We honour the athletes of the 1980 team as both integral members of our Olympic community and champions of sport and we invite everyone to join us in celebrating them throughout this anniversary year," she said.

The battles between Steve Ovett, left, and now World Athletics President Sebastian Coe captured the imagination ©Getty Images
The battles between Steve Ovett, left, and now World Athletics President Sebastian Coe captured the imagination ©Getty Images

As the athletics programme came to its close, East German Waldemar Cierpinski retained his marathon title, a feat achieved only by Abebe Bikila. In 1980, only the men ran over 26 miles and 385 yards. It was the last time this happened as women's sport gained a further foothold. 

In Moscow, women's hockey had finally been accepted but it was badly affected by a boycott which saw the withdrawal of many leading teams.

Organisers scrambled for replacements and Zimbabwe's hockey team received an unexpected call-up to the inaugural tournament. To the surprise and delight of many, they came away with gold and it set the seal on the nation's first appearance on an Olympic stage.

The Games closed with another spectacular display of music and dance,

Killanin took his leave of the Olympic stage with an uncompromising message. 

"I implore the sportsmen of the world to unite in peace before a holocaust descends," he warned.

As a giant inflatable Misha the Bear floated away into the sky, a song of farewell followed. The same music was played as Sochi 2014's Closing Ceremony came to an end.

Soviet Weekly claimed that "at a moment when enemies of the Olympic Movement are proclaiming that the Moscow Games have been 'unrepresentative' and 'below standard' it is worth noting that the actual results show these Games to have been unsurpassed". 

Thirty-six world records were broken and competitors from the same number of countries stood on the medal rostrum.

"Their positive impact on world sport will have echoes for many years to come," claimed the Soviet press.