Sports and Citizen Diplomacy in the Heartland
Sports are sometimes derided as a meaningless and costly spectacle. But at other times, sports can become a vehicle for politics. In the Cold War, governments used athletic competitions as stand-ins for military competitions. Yet in a time of global conflict, citizens also used sports as a platform to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo and advocate for change. In 1983, the residents of Lawrence, Kansas used sports in such a manner when they invited Soviet athletes to participate in the annual Kansas Relays.
During the Cold War, the United States and Soviet Union both turned to sports to demonstrate their national prowess and drum-up popular patriotic support. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and relations between the United States and Soviet Union worsened. Unwilling to face one another on the battlefield and risk all-out nuclear war, the two superpowers instead faced off at the Olympics. In February 1980, the United States hosted the Winter Olympics, where the US Men’s Hockey team, composed primarily of amateur college players, defeated the Soviet team, considered by many to be the best hockey team in the world. In the United States, the so-called “Miracle on Ice” became a metaphor for American superiority. That summer, the Soviet Union hosted the Summer Olympics. Even though the Soviet Union had sent athletes to the Winter Olympics in the United States a few months before, the United States boycotted the Soviet-hosted Olympics, citing the Afghan invasion. In response, the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics, hosted by the United States.
During the time that elapsed between the two boycotted Olympics, however, residents of Lawrence, KS successfully organized an athletic competition that included Soviet athletes and aimed at finding common ground between the American and Soviet people. Lawrence residents wanted to use the Kansas Relays, an annual track and field event hosted by the University of Kansas since 1923, to open lines of communication between the two superpowers. A love of sports, they believed, could show that while the two countries might have different political ideologies, their citizens shared the same goals, concerns, hopes, and fears.
In the early 1980s, as Cold War tensions rose to their highest level in decades, many Americans feared nuclear war. Some began calling for the United States and Soviet Union to “freeze” the number of nuclear weapons each possessed. 1982, Robert Swan, Jr., a Lawrence insurance agent working with professional athletes, attended a rally supporting the freeze and eventual disarmament of US and Soviet nuclear weapons. He and the historian Mark Scott then organized Athletes United for Peace, hoping that through a shared love of sports, US and Soviet citizens, “two extraordinary peoples who share[d] so many common qualities and concerns,” might pressure their leaders into “equitable staged reductions of the nuclear arsenals … to lessen and ultimately eliminate the threat of nuclear war.”  As a first step toward this goal, Scott suggested that a Soviet delegation of athletes be invited to the 1983 Kansas Relays.
American and Soviet leaders both initially hesitated when confronted with this citizen-led initiative. Eventually, however, Athletes United for Peace gained the support of Republican Senator Bob Dole of Kansas and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. The organizers also turned their attention to the Soviet Union, and about one thousand Lawrence school children were encouraged to write letters to Soviet leaders encouraging them to participate in the Relays. These letters were even reported in the Soviet media. The Soviet newspaper Sovetskii Sport (Soviet Sport) reported that the American students “emphasized that they do not want war, but they want to be friends and to trade letters with Soviet boys and girls and that they eagerly await the arrival of our track and field athletes.” In a moment of apparent cultural confusion, the paper also cited a student named “Allan Fieldhaus” (an apparent reference to Allen Fieldhouse, home to the University of Kansas’ storied basketball team), who implored the Soviets to “visit us” and “win many medals.” After three rejections from Soviet Olympic Chairman Marat Gramov, the Soviet leadership finally accepted the invitation to the Kansas Relays. In April 1983, the Kansas Relays began, with fourteen Soviet athletes participating.
The Soviet athletes performed well at the Relays and to this day still hold several records. However, the political significance of the event transcended the athletic competition. The 1983 Kansas Relays brought together citizens of the Soviet Union and the United States in new ways, highlighting the shared humanity of the two competitors. Lawrence radio broadcaster Henry M. Booth told listeners, “Put the politics aside, that’s for the front page. Put the races aside, that’s for the sport’s page … Look at the faces, look at the smiles, the joy and love. If you must title such a thing, then title that page, ‘Toward Human Understanding.’” The success of the Relays convinced organizers to push for even more engagement with their Soviet counterparts.
Image 3: Translation of an article in the Soviet newspaper Sovetskii sport expressing enthusiasm for the Kansas Relays, May 14, 1983. Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History. View Image Full Size
Swan and Scott turned their efforts toward organizing a “Meeting for Peace” and enlisted the aid of Lawrence Mayor David Longhurst, who invited US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to a summit in Lawrence to “get acquainted personally.” The proposal received national attention, but never took place, with Andropov’s health in decline. However, other meetings inspired by the Kansas Relays were held throughout the late 1980s, including events in Kansas, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. Some of these events were promoted by a “Postcards for Peace” campaign organized by a student-led group at the University of Kansas, which delivered nearly 12,000 postcards to the White House and the Soviet Embassy calling for high-level meetings to achieve nuclear arms control. The postcards were signed by Lawrence residents in dormitories, at the university’s first football game, in local churches and civic organizations, and at tables set up in the city’s downtown. The campaign was reportedly inspired by a Lawrence woman who had been sending a postcard every day for nearly a year and a half to Senator Dole urging him to work for the elimination of nuclear weapons. Swan believes that the personal bonds cultivated during these events impacted international affairs, noting that the relationships forged by Senator Dole encouraged him to pressure President George H.W. Bush to support future Russian President Boris Yeltsin during the failed Soviet coup of August 1991.
While the 1983 Kansas Relays did not bring an end to the Cold War, the citizen-led diplomacy that made them possible humanized the conflict’s opponents and demonstrated the influence that motivated and organized people can have far beyond the confines of their local communities.
University of Kansas
Image 4: Lawrence Mayor David Longhurst extends an invitation to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to attend a meeting about nuclear weapons in the “Heart of America,” April 22, 1983. Douglas County Historical Society, Watkins Museum of History. View Image Full Size
- “Athletes United for Peace (Revised Statement),” April 24, 1983, Watkins Museum of History, Lawrence, KS.
- “Lourens: estafeta druzhby” [Lawrence: Friendship Relays], Sovetsky сport, May 14, 1983.
- Robert Swan, Jr., email message to author, June 27, 2020.
- Henry M. Booth, “1320 KLWN/KLZR 106, Editorial for 4/25/83,” Watkins Museum of History, Lawrence, KS.
- David Longhurst to Yuri Andropov, April 22, 1983, Watkins Museum of History, Lawrence, KS.
- “Postcards for Peace,” Watkins Museum of History, Lawrence, KS.
- Robert Swan, Jr., interview by author, June 30, 2020.