Coe and Ovett’s Olympic debt to bureaucrat who defied Thatcher | Andy Bull | Sport

Sir Denis Follows, 71, short and bald, started every day’s work by opening his post. It was a habit he’d had as secretary of the Football Association, and a habit he kept as chairman of the British Olympic Association. In between the two jobs, he’d been knighted. Which was some going, for the son of a stationmaster, but it hadn’t changed him much. He still wore a pair of thick horn rims, still worried about putting on weight, was still the same avuncular, pragmatic man who had kept the Jules Rimet trophy under his bed and carried it out to Mexico 70 in his briefcase. And he still had the same set of principles.

First among them his idea that sport was above politics. Follows was so ­adamant about this that his own daughter still isn’t sure which way he voted, and that adamancy made him one of the key figures in what the Labour parliamentarian Denis Howell described as “the most epic political battle in which I have ever been engaged”.

On Tuesday 22 January 1980, Follows’s morning mail included a ­letter from the prime ­minister, Margaret Thatcher. A month ­earlier, the Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan; six months later, the Soviet Union was due to host the Olympics. Thatcher and the US ­president, Jimmy Carter, had already decided on a boycott. Thatcher’s foreign secretary, Lord Carrington, pointed out that there was just one problem: “participation is not a ­matter for governments”, but the national Olympic associations. All the government could do was advise on a course of action.

Still, when the prime minister willed it, when the president of the US wanted it, how much of a ­problem could it really be? Looking back on the Moscow boycott 40 years later, with the benefit of all Thatcher’s declassified papers, briefings and correspondence, the most striking thing about it is how this one man, Sir Denis Follows, an elderly bureaucrat, squared up to the two most ­powerful leaders in the western world and stared them down.

“In an ideal world, I would share entirely the philosophy of the Olympic movement that sport should be divorced from politics, sadly, however, this is no longer a realistic view,” Thatcher wrote. To go to Moscow “would be to give the ­appearance of condoning” the ­invasion. It didn’t occur to her that Follows might ­disagree. She pressed ahead with asking him to “approach the International Olympic Committee urgently and propose that the Summer Games be moved from the Soviet Union”. She was convinced the Games should be relocated and suggested Britain could co-host them.

Former British Olympic Association chairman Sir Denis Follows (centre) insisted sporting boycotts ‘never do anyone any good’, much to the chagrin of Margaret Thatcher.

Former British Olympic Association chairman Sir Denis Follows (centre) insisted sporting boycotts ‘never do anyone any good’, much to the chagrin of Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: PA

Thatcher had made a mistake here, as the West German chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, took great pleasure in explaining to Carrington. Her idea to move the Games at six months’ notice was “a still-born child”, Schmidt said. “Those who proposed it had no concept of the organisation of international sport.” But she stuck with it and had a working party run up a list of available venues, even after Follows had told her that the IOC’s response to her idea was “not ­difficult to imagine”.

So Thatcher ramped up her ­rhetoric. “The Soviet government hope as another government did in 1936 that the Games will give an immense boost to the state’s prestige internationally,” she told parliament. “The solution is to move the Games to a place where politics do not predominate.” (The Labour MP Eric Heffer called out: “Where’s that? The moon?”)

Carter, who was facing an election in the autumn, was so glad for her support that he wrote her a “Dear Margaret” to express his “deep personal appreciation” for her speech and applaud her “leadership in launching the Olympic boycott”. In private, her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, was briefing that Thatcher had won over “the US, the UK, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain” to the boycott. Or so they thought.

Then, on 1 February, Follows sent his full reply. There was “little or no support for the suggestion the Games be moved” he said. As for the ­boycott, it wasn’t just his decision, but had to be made by a committee of the heads of each of the individual sports ­federations. They were due to vote on 4 March but had postponed until 25 March, because they had “no desire to embarrass the government”. Follows told Thatcher to “rest assured your views will be considered”.

Thatcher didn’t “rest assured”. Three days later, the cabinet started discussing the possibility of withdrawing all their funding to the Sports Council, who funnelled public money to the BOA. It decided not to. But there were other levers to pull. The government talked to the BBC about cancelling coverage, British Airways about cancelling charter flights to Moscow and the BOA’s corporate partners about cancelling sponsorship. Bupa did and the BOA were left scrabbling to scrape together funds in a public fundraising drive, boosted by support from the unions and several Labour councils.

Thatcher wrote again to Follows: “For British athletes to go would be for them to seem to condone an international crime.” She decided to deny leave to all civil service, military and police personnel who were due to compete. That, Follows said, “rather stiffened” his resolve. When he was called in to face the foreign affairs select committee, he fired back. “Boycotts never do anyone any good,” he said. “Sport helps to bridge the gulf between nations, it is the most unifying thing in the world today.” Follows did promise the BOA would “not ignore” a vote in the Commons on the boycott. But he didn’t promise they would obey it.

The MPs voted for the boycott by 315 to 147. Thatcher, who had said she was astonished by Follows’s stance at the select committee, wrote to him again. She was more placatory this time. “We have the highest admiration for the Olympic ideals. It is not we who are perverting that ideal; rather, it is the Soviet Union.”

The opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

The opening ceremony of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Photograph: Tony Duffy/Getty Images

By now, Carter’s special counsel, Lloyd Cutler, had flown to Europe to meet Follows. Cutler was clear the success of the boycott turned on how Thatcher handled the BOA. “The prospects for the political success of the boycott remain good provided the impending British defection can be deferred or contained,” Cutler said. The problem was Follows. “Sir Denis is a living Colonel Blimp,” he told Carter. “He is a pure Olympian who puts aside all responsibilities as a ­citizen of the west in favour of sports as the last hope of world peace. His views of Mrs Thatcher and the president are visibly apoplectic.” The feeling was mutual.

Follows told Cutler he was ­“perfectly willing to have the British team be the only western European team in Moscow because this would show the BOA followed Olympic principles while the others bowed to their governments” even though “he knows the effect on the British government’s prestige at home and abroad will be disastrous”.

On 25 March, the BOA voted to go to the Moscow Games. “Serves her right,” said Schmidt. Thatcher warned that it was “not the end of the matter”. In the Commons, the Conservative Cranley Onslow blamed Follows’ “thick skull” for causing “a national disgrace”, and his colleague Keith Best asked Thatcher to “write a charming letter to Sir Denis Follows not necessarily describing any part of his anatomy”.

But Thatcher was wrong. It was the end of the matter. The British team travelled and won 21 medals, five of them gold, for Duncan Goodhew, Daley Thompson, Allan Wells, Steve Ovett and Seb Coe, who fought their famous duels over 800m and 1500m.

Thatcher conspicuously did not invite them, or anyone else, to Downing Street to celebrate. By the time the team were home, Carter’s boycott was already seen as a public relations disaster. His policy foundered on the rock of Follows’s principles. History isn’t always the work of great men, but sometimes modest, unassuming ones too.

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