Abstention from the Olympic Games has been one of the most powerful blows against the IOC and the prestige of the Olympics, especially during the 1970s and the 1980s. The abstention of almost 30 African countries from the 1976 Montreal Olympics, of the USA and another 60 countries from the Moscow Olympics in 1980 and of 14 countries headed by the Soviet Union from the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 are the most important cases of abstention in the history of the Olympic Games. Albeit important, they are not the only cases. In fact, the Olympics boycott as well as the threat of a boycott were throughout the 20th century one of the most common practices through which the Olympic Games were associated with rivalries among countries or/ and coalitions in the field of international politics. It is characteristic that in 10 out of the 24 Olympic organizations held between 1896 and 2000 there has been a threat of abstention or/ and abstention from the Games. What is more, from the 12 organizations held between 1936 and 1988 there was a boycott (more or less extensive and significant) in 6 cases (1952, 1956, 1976, 1980, 1984, 1988), whereas in 3 other occasions there had been recourse to the threat of abstention (1936, 1968, 1972).
The first time that the threat of abstention was expressed in the Olympic Games was during the organization of 1912 in Stockholm, Sweden. It was when Austria-Hungary threatened to abstain from the Games in the event that Bohemia and Hungary were accepted to participate in the Olympics as independent states with their own flag at the athletes' parade and at the medal presentation ceremonies. A similar request, however without resorting to threats of abstention, had been raised by Russia with regard to the participation of Finland. These problems first appeared during the 1908 London Olympics, when the practice of the athletes' parade by nation during the opening ceremony was introduced. The conciliating intervention of the president of the IOC resolved these problems in the context of the Olympic Games and Austria-Hungary did not realize its threat. On the other hand, resolution in the context of international politics came with the termination of World War I, with the new political geography that was created in Europe through the breaking up of former states (e.g. Austria-Hungary, Russia) and the creation of new ones based to a large extent on the principle of nationalities.
The next time that a powerful state used the threat of abstention from the Olympics was in 1936 in Berlin. The governance of Germany by the Nazis had begun from 1933 and in 1936, the year of the Olympic Games, the famous anti-Semitic Nuremberg decrees were put into effect. There were many reactions the most important one being that of the USA, which threatened with abstention from the Olympics, something which was eventually averted due to the intervention of the IOC and the pressures exercised on the organizers.
In 1952 China refused to take part in the Games due to the participation of Taiwan, thus causing the first, albeit limited, case of boycott. However, four years later, seven countries refused to participate in the Olympic Games, for different reasons. China abstained from the Games because of the invitation to Taiwan. Egypt, Iraq and Libya due to the warfare in Suez, whereas the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland protested through their abstention the military Soviet invasion of Hungary.
In 1968 and in 1972 certain African countries used the threat of a boycott due to the invitation of South Africa and Rhodesia, countries that pursued a racist policy, thus achieving the exclusion of these countries from the Games. However, in 1976, the threat of abstention became reality. The cause was the participation of New Zealand in rugby games in South Africa. This time the pressure by several African countries which requested the exclusion of New Zealand from the Games was not accepted, on the grounds that rugby was not an Olympic sport. As a result, 29 African countries refused to take part in the Olympic Games, thus provoking the first extensive boycott.
Four years later, in the Moscow Olympics took place the most widespread abstention in the history of the Olympic Games. The United States and another 60 countries refused to participate in the Games, protesting against the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan. What is more, during the Olympic Games separate games were held in Philadelphia, called "Liberty Bell Classic". The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics was the third consecutive Olympic organization where a large abstention was organized. Although the 13 countries that joined the Soviet Union in its decision to abstain from the Games was not a considerable quantity, and the organizers had the satisfaction of a record participation (141 nations), the significance of the abstention was great for the prestige of the Games. Like in 1980, separate games were organized in 1984 as well. They were called "Friendship Games" and were held in six different cities (Moscow, Havana, Prague, Warsaw, Tallinn, Olomouk and Katowice).
The end of the Cold War, which was inaugurated with the reform policy in the Soviet Union and the agreements on the armaments between the Soviet Union and the USA, had a positive impact on the organization of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. It was the first time after twelve years that the three greatest sports powers of that time (United States, Soviet Union, East Germany) participated in the Olympics. However, this did not avert a new abstention, which was of a smaller extent this time, but had a symbolic significance. The absentees from the Games of 1988 were North Korea, Cuba and Nicaragua.
It was the last time that abstention (or the threat of abstention) marred the Olympic Games, seeing that in 1992 (Barcelona), 1996 (Atlanta) and 2000 (Sydney) the participation of the countries was the largest ever. What is more, in the Sydney Olympics it was the first time after 1936 that boycott had not spoiled the Olympics, not even as a threat, for three organizations in a row.