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Unions Honoured - Bitter Olympic Struggle Remembered

15 May 2010

The Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA) has been honoured 30 years after they raised $50,000 to send the Australian Olympic Team to Moscow defying demands for a 1980 Games’ boycott by the Fraser Government.

At its Annual General Meeting today, the AOC made a special presentation to the former Federal Secretary of the SUA, Pat Geraghty, who was instrumental in convincing his rank and file members that Australia’s athletes should not be denied the chance to compete.

The AOC also honoured the union, now known at the Maritime Union of Australia, who backed Olympic officials in a bitter dispute which split the nation.

AOC President John Coates felt recognition was timely because it coincided with the release in January 2011 by the Federal Government of “Cabinet-in-Confidence” documents from 1980.

“It is important to remember the bitter struggle the Australian Olympic Committee and our athletes went through to participate in the Moscow Olympics of that year,” Coates said.

Back then, Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser supported US calls for a boycott of the Moscow Olympics over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

The Seamen’s Union saw Fraser’s move as the “politicisation of Olympic sport” and claimed the “Fraser Government wanted to sabotage the Games”.

The row caused a major rift within the Australian Olympic Federation (AOF). Enormous political pressure was applied to the AOF executive, the different sporting bodies and individual athletes not to compete in Moscow.

Athletes received death threats and were made to feel like traitors if they did not withdraw. The SUA accused Malcolm Fraser of political intimidation and likened him to a schoolyard bully picking on defenceless athletes. “Innocent young athletes were made to feel guilty, dishonourable and ashamed” it said.

Finally the AOF voted 6/5 in favour of competing in Moscow but the hockey, yachting, shooting, equestrian and volleyball teams decided not to go.

The Team size dwindled from 273 athletes to 123 and corporate sponsors withdrew financial support leaving the team desperately short of funds.

The rank and file members of the SUA stepped in donating $10 each in a drive to raise $20,000. By July 1980 SUA members nationwide had donated $25,000 and money was still coming in. By the time fundraising finished the SUA handed over a cheque for $50,000.

Athletes from 17 sports were helped by the unions.

“It was only through the generosity of the Labour movement which stepped in to raise the necessary funds that enabled the Team to compete in Moscow,” said John Coates, who at that time was Honorary Secretary of the Australian Amateur Rowing Council and Olympic Fundraising Director in NSW.

The struggle is documented in a book called Voices From The Ships. In it Geraghty says the SUA saw the boycott as “unprincipled and hypocritical”.

The Fraser Government continued to trade with the USSR (Russia) selling huge amounts of minerals, wheat and wool while on the other hand pressing the athletes to boycott the Games.

The AOC historian Harry Gordon wrote the Fraser Government “continued normal diplomatic and commercial contacts but used sport as the least expensive weapon”.

Gordon accused the PM of being on a “crusade” but Malcolm Fraser did not have the power to force a boycott.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is independent of all governments. Games participation is not decided by government but the National Olympic Committee.

While the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) bowed to pressure from President Jimmy Carter and agreed to boycott, Coates and the General Manager of the 1980 Australian Olympic Team, Phil Coles, were determined to go to Moscow.

“We may have appeared like strange bedfellows but the SUA and the Olympic movement shared a common goal of world peace,” Coates said.

“Fraser was wrong to try and mix politics and sport.”

“The overwhelming union support also provided a much needed psychological boost for the athletes,” Coates said.

Coates says the Moscow episode had a very big impact on the AOC and their philosophy. In the recently published history of Australian seafarers, Voices From The Ships he recalls the political pressure “offer athletes money not to go and attack our source of funds, it had a big impact on me”.

Coates says “it instilled in him the need for AOC to be independent of Government and the AOC would no longer accept Government funding. It made me realise that you’re not really independent unless you’re financially independent.”

Thirty years on the AOC enjoys financial independence, it neither seeks nor receives one cent of government money and with that Coates says has come “the capacity to be a more objective critic of government sports policy and things, when it is necessary”.

Also honoured at today’s AGM was Olympian and author, Lisa Forrest, for her book Boycott. Her presentation read “your personal story and reminder of how politics can interfere in the lives of young athletes.”


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