Cierpinski finishing the marathon
Cierpinski in the podium with Nijboer in the background

The Olympics in Moscow 1980 were marked by the boycott of 66 countries to protest the Soviet-Afghan war. This was a big step back, as only 80 countries participated, the lowest number since 1956. Nevertheless, the competing countries had won 71% of all the medals in the Montreal Olympics of 1976, probably because the extended doping programs in Eastern Bloc countries.

As a protest, up to 16 additional countries decided to participate under the Olympic flag. Without much opposition the Soviet Union topped easily the medal stands. The boycotting countries alternatively participated in the so-called “Olympic Boycott Games”, in Philadelphia (USA).

In athletics, Ethiopian Miruts Yifter got a double, winning the 5000 metres and 10000 metres, and joining an exclusive “club” also including Hannes Kolehmainen, Emil Zátopek and Lasse Viren. Worth mentioning also the duels between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett over the 800 and 1500 metres, with a victory for each one. 

Regarding the marathon, Moscow 1980 was the last time that the event was exclusively masculine. Women finally got their way into the Olympic marathon four years later, giving us a lot of epic stories to tell.  Powerful marathon nations such as the United States and Japan missed the Games, and their athletes the chance to compete at the highest levels.

Marathon was scheduled for August 1 at 17.15. Although many runners had trained in cold conditions, weather was warm (26°C). The course was flat, with start and finish inside Lenin Central Stadium, built alongside the river and a capacity over 100 thousand spectators.

74 runners took the start, among them the reigning champion Waldemar Cierpinski, from the German Democratic Republic. The two best marathon runners in the world were missing: Bill Rodgers (USA), winner of the New York Marathon in 1976-79, Fukuoka in 1977, and Boston in 1978-80, and Toshihiko Seko (Japan) winner in Fukuoka in 1979-80.

At 10k (31.16) soviet (now Belarus) Vladimir Kotov had a 6s lead over teammate (now Kyrgyzstan) Setymkul Dzhumanazarov and young (18 years old) French record-holder sensation Jean-Michel Charbonnel. The “easy” pace allowed to reach the 20k (1.03.42) with a pack of 22 athletes, but the hot weather was to become unbearable for the weakest among them.

Mexican Rodolfo Gómez after watching Lasse Viren, whom he feared the most, doing a stop to piss, decided to force his pace, crossing the 25k first (1.17.55). Between the 25 and 30k he lengthened his lead to 23s, with 9 runners still following him closely, and Viren abandoning the race.

As the kilometres went by Gómez lead decreased. By 35k (1.49.47) he was only 3s ahead of Cierpinski, Gerard Nijboer (Netherlands) and Dereji Nedi (Ethiopia), with the whole Soviet team just 2s behind.

The intense pace had started to put things in place. The effort of leading the race for so long sent Gómez to the 7th position in the 40k, and 80s behind front-leader Cierpinski, who crossed that point in 2.04.35. He was managing a lead of 19s over Dzhumanazarov and Nijboer.

Entering the Olympic Stadium and the last 200 metres it was clear that victory was for Cierpinski, managing to equal Abebe Bikila´s feat in the Olympics of 1960 and 1964. His superb time was 2.11.03, despite the heat and humidity. Before him only 6 athletes had been able to run faster than 2.13 in an Olympic marathon!

Second place was for Dutch athlete Nijboer (2.11.20), who managed to beat the whole Soviet team entering in 3rd, 4th and 5th place, with the bronze medal going to Dzhumanazarov. The Soviet result was the second best ever in marathon, after the Olympics of 1908 where the United States managed a 1st, 3rd and 4th place.

Later that year most of the top marathoners who had missed the Olympics were invited to compete in Fukuoka, where Cierpinksi only finished 6th, with victory for local runner Seko. Nevertheless, it was a race where he never did good. Despite this defeat he never placed lower than 6th in any major championship. The boycott of the Soviet Union to the Olympics of 1984 in Los Angeles denied him the chance of trying a third gold medal.

As for Nijboer, he didn´t manage to improve the European record result he managed in Amsterdam (2.09.01) just before these Olympics. He would become though European champion in 1982, competing again in the Olympics in 1984 and 1988 without much success.

The other medallist, Dzhumanazarov, reached his peak result in Moscow. He got the bronze medal with a finishing time only 19s slower than his PB. His best result afterwards was 5th in the Tokyo Marathon the following year.



No more records have been broken in Olympic Games than in Moscow 1980: 36 World and 74 Olympic records. These otherwise amazing results were already at the time overshadowed by suspicion, as the use of doping techniques was widespread.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, documents uncovered at the Stasi (official state security service of East Germany) headquarters implicated Cierpinski in the East Germany´s state-sponsored doping system. Former competitor Frank Shorter, who finished second in Montreal 1976 behind him, advocated with other athletes to have his victories stripped.


More to watch:

A video with the highlights of the marathon in Moscow 1980 can be seen in:

A film related to doping-state sponsored programs:



“The Olympic Marathon”, DE Martin & RWH Gynn. Human Kinetics, 2000.

Marathon through the Red Square
Lenin Central Olympic Stadium

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