An Olympic boycott is simply not the answer to political conflict

Tuesday July 23rd, 2013

Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is advocating a possible U.S. boycott of the Olympics.
Bill Clark/CQ Roll Cal

Weren't we here once before? Does Senator Lindsey Graham remember anything from 1980? He was a law student in South Carolina then, just about the time when hundreds of athletes from the United States and thousands of others from 65 countries were being tossed about like useless pawns in a game of political chess. Young men and women had spent their lives preparing for a chance to be the best at something on behalf of their countries, but then were told it wasn't all that important. Senator Graham, Olympic boycotts don't work. Never have. Can't expect they ever will. Your suggestion that a boycott of the Winter Games in Sochi next February would be a good way to stand up to Russia for its housing of Edward Snowden is a bit like taking your ball and storming home in a hissy fit. This is neither a defense of Snowden, nor a nod to Vladimir Putin; it is merely a reminder that the people who will be hurt by this pointless gesture would be ours, yours and mine. Cut off your nose to spite your face with some other brand of political tomfoolery, but leave the Olympians out of it. Can't you do any better?

The history of Olympic boycotts achieving a successful and meaningful end isn't great. In 1956, Olympic committees from Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt kept their teams out of the Olympics in Melbourne in order to protest the invasion of Egypt after France, Israel and the UK entered the Suez Canal to protest its nationalization.

In 1976, Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and Congolese official Jean Claude Ganga led a boycott of 28 nations, mostly from Africa, out of the Olympics in Montreal because New Zealand had allowed the Springboks rugby team from South Africa to play four exhibition matches in New Zealand while South Africa was still under Olympic suspension because of its policy of apartheid. This was a tenuous connection of dots, since rugby wasn't an Olympic sport and the New Zealand Olympic Committee had no jurisdiction over the visit. Athletes from several nations such as Morocco, Cameroon and Egypt, arrived in Montreal only to have their delegations return after the first day of competition. The widely anticipated showdown between distance runners John Walker of New Zealand and Filbert Bayi of Tanzania in the 1,500 meters never emerged. Springbok made another tour of New Zealand in 1981.

The ill-advised boycotts in 1980 and 1984 had very little effect on anyone other than athletes. Soviet troops did not rush out of Afghanistan over the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics, but prominent U.S. athletes missed out on a chance to put a lifetime of training to its full measure, as did athletes from 64 other nations. Some came back and participated in 1984, when equally great athletes from Eastern Europe were kept away as a mere matter of revenge.

Even today, U.S. swimmers are still suffering the effects of the 1980 boycott. How so? Before the Moscow Games, each country was allowed to have three entries per individual swimming event. The United States, then as now, the top swim nation in the world, would sometimes sweep the three medals in certain individual races, as it did in four events in 1976, two in 1972, six in 1968. Other times, a swimmer who placed third at the U.S. Olympic trials would be competitive enough to finish among the top three at the Games, even gaining a higher finish against international competition than at home at the trials. That all changed for good in Moscow, where the bureau of FINA, the sport's international governing body, put to vote a proposal to limit the entries to two per country. Since officials from the U.S. and some other Western countries were absent, the motion passed. Ever since, from the Games in Los Angeles in 1984 through London in 2012, there are probably a half dozen or so medals that U.S. swimmers could have won, but didn't, because of the rule change made in Moscow during the U.S.-led boycott.

Senators have talked about asking the president to recommend moving the G20 Summit from St. Petersburg in September, and the White House is still considering canceling a visit to from President Barack Obama this fall to meet with Putin in Moscow. Whether those symbolic gestures have any effect -- and a sports column overreaches if it debates that point -- at least athletes won't be the sacrificial guinea pigs for an international stare down for which they bear no responsibility. "I love the Olympics," Graham said, "but I hate what the Russian government is doing throughout the world. If they give asylum to a person I believe has committed treason, that's taking it to a whole new level." In the world of geo-politics, one man's treason is another's reason to find a way to stand up to treason. Think of the potential for other nations to boycott Olympics based on events in the Middle East, Syria, Cuba, and North Korea. Even House Speaker John Boehner, Graham's political teammate, begged to differ with his colleague, saying, "Why would we want to punish U.S. athletes who've been training for three years to compete in the Olympics over a traitor who can't find a place to call home?"

What's more, the U.S.O.C. deserves some credit for making political inroads against some sturdy international opposition. Committee Chairman Larry Probst was recently granted membership in the IOC and the improved relations with the IOC has increased the possibility that a U.S. city will be chosen to host another Olympics in the near future. That's more money, exposure, sponsorship and home cooking for U.S. athletes. Yes, the U.S.O.C. responded firmly to this matter last week and may have put this issue to rest for now, but Snowden's case is still active and there will be many other examples in the coming years of nations searching for ways to express outrage and condemnation over grievances that need more nuanced solutions. If the notion of another foolish boycott were ever to gain much traction, those four years of progress that Probst and CEO Scott Blackmun have produced could be quickly derailed. Olympic boycotts, such as the one Graham suggests considering, cause little more than self-inflicted wounds.

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