How Unions Won Us The Olympics


As Australia’s team arrives for the Sochi Olympic Games it is timely to remember the challenges our athletes faced just getting to the Games in 1980, the last time they were held in Russia.

This is a story about overcoming the odds, reinforcing the Australian belief in a fair go for all, and how a successful union campaign played a critical role in Australia winning the right to host the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney.

The Moscow Olympic Games became embroiled in a political battle with the US leading an international boycott campaign in response to the USSR military invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

This took the Olympics into new territory. Never before had one of the world’s leading powers refused to take part in the world’s premier sporting event for non-sporting reasons.

The US-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics divided Australia. Some argued that our alliance with the US required our loyalty. Others felt that unless we were actually at war with another country there was no reason to forgo the opportunity to take part.

The Australian government supported the boycott in principle but said they would leave the decision to participate to our national Olympic body and the individual athletes. That was the theory anyway.

Having assured the nation that the Australian Olympic Federation would have the final say on Australia’s participation in Moscow, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser actively pushed the boycott when the Olympic body voted to defy the government’s position and send a team to Moscow.

Australia's victorious 4 x 100 relay team, which won gold at Moscow in 1980.

Corporate sponsorship — crucial to the ability of Australian athletes to compete — was withdrawn. Shell oil took back the $20,000 it had earmarked for our sporting heroes. Qantas and the Commonwealth Bank followed suit. The Western Australian state government refused paid leave to two of its employees, who were selected as Olympians.

Individual sporting associations were offered financial incentives by the federal government to withdraw their teams. When that didn’t work, individual athletes were offered $6000 to stay at home.

At the time, the Soviet Union was not subject to any economic sanctions from Australia. In the two months after the Fraser government declared the need for a boycott, Australia sold $90 million worth of wheat to the USSR. Our total exports to the target of this sporting boycott more than doubled from $265 million in 1978-79 to $653 million in 1979-80.

This prompted a letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald to comment on the confusion: 

"… will somebody please explain why it is all right for some Australians to compete with other nations for trade with Russia in primary and secondary products, and so wrong for other Australians to compete with other nations in Moscow in athletic prowess?”

Meanwhile, the athletes who had put in so much hard work to represent their country faced missing out on their Olympic opportunity. However, through some unusual alliances Australia did compete in the Moscow Olympics.

John Coates and Pat Geraghty grew up on different sides of the tracks. Coates was a lawyer, Olympic fundraiser and rowing enthusiast, Geraghty an experienced union leader of the Seamen’s Union of Australia (now the Maritime Union). They came together to forge a common purpose — sending an Australian team to the Moscow Olympics.

The initial ambition was modest — Geraghty’s Seamen’s Union of Australia agreed to find $2500 to send a single rower. But the response from individual union members was so overwhelming that an incredible $50,000 was raised. In today’s money that is close to $300,000. It was enough to fund athletes from 17 different sports and ensure a proper team made it to Moscow. This money came from thousands of working men and women from across the country. Of the 273 athletes originally chosen, 123 got to compete in the Moscow Games.

The way in which Australia participated in the Moscow Olympics led to the financial independence of the Australian Olympic Federation, now the Australian Olympic Committee. Perhaps most important of all is the role Australia’s participation played in Sydney winning the right to host the Games.

The Sydney bid put forward by the Australian and NSW governments had made great play of the fact that Australia was one of only two nations — the other was Greece — with an unbroken record of attendance since the modern Olympics were founded in 1896. That may well have been the critical fact that saw Sydney scrape past Beijing, winning the right to host the Games by just two votes.

If the Liberal government’s boycott demand had succeeded and union members had not helped fund Australian athletes, the greatest sporting spectacle in our history may never have happened in Sydney in 2000.

Lee Rhiannon worked for the Seamen’s Union of Australia in the 1980s.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.