Cold War Diplomatic Games: The 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics

Today’s post comes from Callie Belback from the National Archives History Office.

The Summer Olympic Games are a major international multi-sport event held every four years. The inaugural Games took place in 1896 in Athens, Greece, and since then have been held in various cities throughout the world. Historically, cities clamored to host the games, committing to building 40 different sporting venues, a residential village able to host 16,000 participants, a massive media infrastructure, a ceremonial space, and a transportation system. 

Welcome to Los Angeles: Olympic City – 1984. (National Archives Identifier 55001)

The United States has hosted the Summer Olympic Games four times throughout history in three different cities: St. Louis, Missouri, Los Angeles, California(twice), and Atlanta, Georgia. Though the Olympic Games have always officially been played in the spirit of international camaraderie and a promotion of peace, they have also always been a platform for diplomatic political messages aired out on the world stage. 

The Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games in retaliation for an American-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Two months prior to the start of the 1984 Games, in May, President Reagan visited the U.S. Olympic Training Facility in Colorado Springs. While there, he assured the athletes that the Soviet Union boycott of the Games would not ruin the Summer Olympics. Reagan adamantly condemned the Soviet Union boycott and pronounced that the Olympic Games movement was “alive and well.” 

1984 was a Presidential election year, and White House image-makers ensured that Reagan was seen at many Olympic Games events to combat the “age factor”—a concern, since at the time, Reagan was the oldest man to occupy the Oval Office. 

Between July and August of 1984, Los Angeles hosted the Summer Olympic Games for a second time (it previously hosted the 1932 Summer Games). At the start of the games, Reagan gave a speech to the 614 U.S. Olympic athletes and emphasized American patriotic sentiment. And while Reagan did not explicitly mention the Soviet Union boycott, he alluded to the boycott subtly. Reagan spoke of a “new patriotism spreading across the country” and “an affection for our way of life, expressed by people who represent the width and breadth of a culturally diverse society.” Reagan also made sure to highlight the Games partnership with private corporations. 

Following his speech, President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan went to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to initiate the opening ceremony and start the games. President Reagan was the first U.S. President to open the Summer Olympic Games. In total, Reagan attended nine separate Olympic Games events; however, none of these events were actual athletic competitions. While at these events, Reagan focused his attention on the U.S. Olympic Committee leadership and the U.S. athletes. Though Reagan closely associated himself with the games, he publicly referred to the federal government’s responsibility to ensure the “safety” of the Olympic Games but nothing else. 

Just weeks after the Olympic Games concluded, Reagan’s Republican National Convention supporters chanted “USA!” in reference to the cheers that reverberated around the Olympic Games stadiums in Los Angeles. 

While Olympic Games are fun to watch on the court or the field or in the pool, they are also interesting to watch outside of the athletic events. The Olympic Games have always been a chance for nations to show their might and engage in complex diplomatic maneuvers—maneuvers almost as exciting as the sports themselves.  

You can learn more about the impact of sports in the exhibit All American: The Power of Sports, which runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC, from September 16, 2022, through January 7, 2024.

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