Why Nigeria, others boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games

The Olympic Games offer a uniquely peaceful and mutually respectful meeting-place for the nations of the world to showcase their skills in various sporting events. However, it hasn’t always been that way, and the Olympics were once a particularly bright flashpoint in one of the tensest geopolitical dramas in the ‘70s.

Image of Olufemi Olutoye
Major-General Olufemi Olutoye, President, Nigerian Olympic Committee (NOC), announces Nigeria’s withdrawal from the Olympics Games in Montreal, July 16, 1976/Montreal Gazette.

In 1976, Montréal became the first Canadian city to host the Olympic Games. It was the XXIst (21st) Olympiad which held from July 17 to August 1, 1976. The Games included memorable performances from many athletes, including Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci and American decathlete Bruce Jenner.

At 3:00pm on July 17, 1976, more than 73,000 people gathered in the Olympic Stadium to take part in the Opening Ceremonies. The rituals began with the arrival of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, accompanied by Prince Philip and Prince Andrew and by International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Lord Killanen and Commissioner of the Games Roger Rousseau.

This was followed by the procession of athletes into the stadium. After the Queen officially opened the Games, the Olympic flame was carried into the stadium by two 15-year-old athletes, Sandra Henderson from Toronto and Stéphane Préfontaine from Montréal, to the sounds of the Olympic Cantata written by Louis Chantigny.

However, with all the pomp and pageantry that graced the occasion, Nigeria and 27 other African countries announced just days before the opening ceremony that they would boycott the summer games in Montreal.

This action by these African countries meant the loss of over 440 competitors (173 from athletics alone), including world class runners like Filbert Bayi from Tanzania (who held the world record in the 1500m), John Akii-Bua from Uganda (who held the world record in the 400 metres hurdles) and Nigeria’s boxer in Fatai Ayinla-Adekunle, who won a bronze medal at the world amateur championships two years earlier.

Image of Nadia Comãneci
Romania’s Nadia Comãneci becomes the first person in Olympic Games history to score a perfect 10 in gymnastics, 1976/Paul Vathis, AP.

In addition, Montréal lost a million dollars in seat refunds and event cancellations in the first two days of the Games.

But why would Nigeria and other African countries boycott an important event like the Olympics?

In June 1976, South Africa’s apartheid government massacred over 350 anti-apartheid protestors during the infamous Soweto riots. This generated uproar among other Africa nations causing hostile relations with the apartheid regime. Though South Africa had been barred from major sporting events around the world and subsequently expelled from the IOC in 1970.

However, on the eve of the Olympic Games, New Zealand’s rugby team embarked on a controversial tour of apartheid South Africa in defiance of an informal but widely observed international athletics embargo on the country. The Africans called for New Zealand’s expulsion from the Games, but the International Olympic Committee rejected the idea.

In retaliation, 28 African countries sat out the following summer’s Olympic Games to be held in Montreal, Canada.

As a result, Nigeria and 27 other African countries walked out of the 1976 Games. In fact, some athletes who were already taking part in preliminary competitions had to pack up and leave. It was a key moment in the fight against racial segregation and discrimination in apartheid South Africa, which would end almost 18 years later with the election of President Nelson Mandela.

Though rugby wasn’t even an Olympic sport, black-ruled African countries saw an opportunity to punish the rugby-obsessed white minority of apartheid South Africa.

The boycotters considered it unacceptable for any country or any international sporting organization to legitimize the South African government in any way, as New Zealand’s rugby team had done.

The threat of an African boycott had already kept South Africa out of the 1968 and 1972 Olympics but the African states threat to skip Montreal failed to bar New Zealand from the games or to compel the country to cancel the rugby team’s tour of South Africa.

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With the clock ticking toward Montreal’s opening ceremony, the boycott threat led to tense negotiations which ended in stalemate. The IOC argued that its hands were tied because rugby was outside the Olympic Games. Nonetheless, the rugby tour continued and New Zealand was not ejected.

As a result, Nigeria and 27 other African countries walked out of the 1976 Games. In fact, some athletes who were already taking part in preliminary competitions had to pack up and leave. It was a key moment in the fight against racial segregation and discrimination in apartheid South Africa, which would end almost 18 years later with the election of President Nelson Mandela.

Seeing black athletes sacrificed their chance to play in the Games also raised the morale of black youth protesters in South Africa.

The boycott resulted in cancellations and rescheduled events, and organizers issued refunds totalling $1 million.

Boycotts would also affect results in the two following Summer Games when Canada and the United States of America boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and Eastern European countries retaliating in 1984 when they boycotted the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Sources

Historica Canada

Montreal Gazette

The Atlantic

The Guardian

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Ayomide Akinbode

Ayomide Akinbode holds a degree in Chemistry but has a passion for History and Classics. When he is not writing, he’s either sleeping or playing Scrabble.

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