The New York Times has a rather breathless and exciting account of how a “Phone Call From China Transformed ’84 Olympic Games”. It relates the tale of how the head of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee believes China “saved the Olympics”, both for LA and subsequent cities, when they confirmed on May 12th, 1984 that they would come to the LA Games in defiance of a Soviet-led boycott. The Soviets issued a list four days prior of 100 countries that supposedly agreed to the boycott, one of which was China. Considering only 14 countries eventually joined, I think its safe to say the Soviets were full of crap. The article gives the impression that somehow the Chinese had to be vigorously lobbied or were taking some major political risk. That’s kinda hard to swallow, considering what the New York Times keeps in their own archives.
Time Magazine, April 30, 1984 ushering in a quarter century of “Changing China” cliches
China was a few years into the “Four Modernizations”, and that year the PRC would reform SOEs and COEs, starting a wave of double-digit GDP growth. Meanwhile the USSR was still flailing away at a central economy that didn’t really go anywhere. The L.A. Olympics were the first commercially financed Olympics ever, eventually netting a $250 million dollar surplus. Between that and the Soviet Friendship Games, its pretty clear which was Deng Xiaoping’s kind of sporting event.
Just four weeks prior to the phone call, Ronald Reagan had been welcomed to China with a 21 gun salute and guys drinking Coca Cola. The USSR responded by accusing China of openly supporting Reagan’s “militarist course” and “provocative anti-Soviet orientation”, and then cancelling the highest level talks in 15 years. The Sino-Soviet split had been going on for years, and China in the 1980s was aiding the United States’ proxies against the Soviet Union in at least two conflicts: namely the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan and the Contras in Nicaragua. The conflict in Afghanistan, by the way, was the official reason why China boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics, which probably would have been their first Olympics since the Taiwan/Taipei problem had been resolved, had it not been for the unfortunate fact that Moscow was in the Soviet Union. Deng Xiaoping, later that October, said that Sino-Soviet relations were still going nowhere (apart from trade), due to “three big obstacles”: Soviet troops in Afghanistan, support for Vietnam in Cambodia, and all those SS-20 nuclear missiles along the border. The thaw didn’t really happen until Gorby, and ever since the two countries still kinda dislike each other on a more personal level. It’s hard to imagine that the L.A. Olympic committee’s eleventh hour trip to Beijing was anything more than a junket. But hey, that’s what organizing the Olympics is all about.