Moscow 40 years on: Remembering the Olympics that nearly never were

It's forty years to the day since the Olympics that nearly never were, writes James Toney.

And for a British Olympic Association official at the heart of one of sport's most gripping off-field dramas, it still feels like yesterday.

Dick Palmer headed the British team at ten Olympics but the 86-year old's memories of Moscow 1980 perhaps burn brighter than any other.

Five legends of British sport left those Games with gold medals - Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Daley Thompson, Duncan Goodhew and Allan Wells.

But if it had not been for the steely resolve of an unassuming one-time PE teacher from Pembroke Dock, they'd never have got on the plane.

As a succession of 66 nations, led by the United States, decided to boycott in protest to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, Palmer and then BOA chairman Sir Denis Follows found themselves at the centre of a political maelstrom.

Prime minister Margaret Thatcher vocally wanted the team to stay at home and some MPs fumed with fury as questions were asked in the House of Commons about the team's participation, with politicians voting 315 to 147 against attending.

Even public opinion also seemed ranged against Great Britain continuing their record of competing in every summer Olympics ever staged.

Palmer would arrive at the team's Wandsworth offices to a mountain of mail, often dodging a gauntlet of press questions on his way to the front door.

When he sat at his desk the phone would ring off the hook with pleas not to travel, punctuated by the occasional call from an athlete desperate to take part.

But Palmer proved as nimble negotiating the perils of sports diplomacy as a gymnast on the balance beam, working every back channel and contact to get Team GB to the Games.

"It was a pretty torrid time, it certainly seemed like the whole world was against us, I don't think any sporting body has ever had to face up to such vicious attacks," recalls Palmer.

"Every kind of political pressure was brought on us not to travel but we believed that every citizen has the right to leave these shores and return – it's an inalienable right.

"We passed a resolution that said that because the Games are about the individual, we should determine athletes have the individual choice as to whether they went or not. That resolution became the bedrock of our policy.

“However, if it had not been for the fact that the British Olympic Association raises its own money and is independent of government, we probably wouldn’t have gone.”

Palmer also commenced a behind the scenes public relations campaign, briefing top journalists on the stories of athletes being denied their moment.

When shot putter Geoff Capes was refused paid leave by his police employees it was front page news, as was the decision to deny athletes from the services permission to travel.

"By the time we went we'd turned the public from 70% against us going to 70% in favour," he added.

"What really annoyed people was trade was continuing with the Soviet Union but our athletes were just being held hostage to politics. It didn't seem right or fair."

Some sports elected not to attend, including hockey, equestrian and sailing, but a team of 219, 149 men and 70 women, eventually departed, finishing seventh in the medal table with five golds, seven silvers and nine bronzes.

However, even after electing to travel, Palmer still had to use his quickly learned political skills, as Soviet Union officials sought to make capital from the decision to compete.

British athletes refused to march at the opening ceremony, with Palmer their sole representative, marching into the 102,000 capacity Lenin Stadium carrying the Olympic, rather than Union, flag.

And when Coe and co climbed the top step of the podium they didn't hear God Save the Queen but Spyridon Samaras's Olympic Hymn.

"When I asked who should carry the flag, our chairman just turned to me and said 'you'," he recalls.

"We didn't feel it appropriate the team marched, nor did we want a Soviet soldier carrying our flag. It should have been our most prominent athlete but it was just me with the thing.

"It was pretty lonely and surreal out there with no team-mates and the whole world watching. I was proud to represent the team but it was over pretty quickly and thankfully we could get on with the sport."

Writing in the Olympic Report that followed the Games, Sir Denis said: "We believe sport should be a bridge, and not a destroyer."

And when London bid for the 2012 Games, Coe - who won 1500m gold and 800m silver in Moscow - credited Britain's decision to attend as being crucial to delivering votes even a quarter of a century later.

"We should be very proud of how the British Olympic Association stood tall and independent in the face of such political pressure," he said. "I still break out in a cold sweat about not making it to the Russian capital."

The pages of Olympic history are littered with tales of great performances from sporting giants but there's a special space too for the unassumingly modest Palmer, whose unstinting dedication to Olympic ideals is equally worthy of a place in legend. Sportsbeat 2020