Offered incentives by the federal government to stay at home, half the contingent backed out. Despite the Australian Olympic Federation agreeing six to five to send a team, the public pressure was too much for some, including sprinter Raelene Boyle and the men’s hockey, shooting, yachting and equestrian teams.
Sixty five nations backed the boycott instigated by US President Jimmy Carter and 80 countries sent athletes.
Tonelli said he was called a “traitor” by the then Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, and received bombs threats and someone spat at his mum.
Hadfield said he was offered “a serious amount of cash” – equivalent to half his annual teacher’s salary at the time – not to attend. He is still angry that his wife Marilyn was “vilified mercilessly” by people too gutless to attack him personally.
Lisa Forrest, then 16, said her 12-year-old sister answered the phone to receive a death threat intended for the swimmer.
Like many athletes who attended, Hadfield, who also represented Australia at the Commonwealth Games, spoke at rallies to drum up support for the athletes to attend.
The athletes said that the Olympics were about peace not politics.
Hadfield said then, and now, that the Fraser government had placed the “entire onus of responsibility of their policy on Afghanistan” on the athletes while exports of wool, wheat and rutile to the Soviet Union were rising.
When the team left Australia, Tonelli said it was “with no fanfare, no nothing, just get out of town”.
In her book, Boycott, Forrest, a broadcaster, recalled her disappointment when she discovered the team would be marching under the Olympic banner, and not the Australian flag, at the opening ceremony in Lenin Stadium 40 years ago today.
“It was a life experience that no one should be denied and after the dramas of the boycott it seemed important that we walk into that stadium as Australians and say ‘we made it’.”
The public attacks were “bloody hard” for someone as young as she was, Forrest said. The “worst week” in 1980 came after a series of big black front page headlines in The Sun savaging athletes for going. “I felt sick, nobody talked about mental health then, and I do remember being wiped out,” Forrest said.
The public attacks caused self-doubt then, which she said recurred at Moscow before a disappointing swim, where she came in fifth.
The controversy distracted the team from training, said Tonelli. When the men’s medley won, breaking records, it was “absolution, vindication” of their decision to attend.
He recalls chef de mission Phil Coles hugging him and yelling: “That’ll teach them back home.”
The “boundless hypocrisy” of the Olympic committee members who voted to boycott still sticks in Hadfield’s craw when he hears boasts of Australia’s unbroken attendance at every modern Olympic Games. This record was a major reason why Australia won the Sydney Olympics, officials later conceded.
Julie Power is a senior reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald.