Olympic Boycotts Do Not Work

 

The Honorable Lindsey Graham, Republican, South Carolina, United States Senate
290 Russell Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510-4001

Dear Sen. Graham:

Please allow me to start with a joke. I guess the 2024 Summer Games won’t be in Charleston, South Carolina!

Now, sir, seriously:

Olympic boycotts only harm athletes. Please read your history books. Thank you.

Senator, you are flat-out wrong in suggesting in an interview with The Hill newspaper that the U.S. boycotts the Sochi Olympics, which begin next Feb. 7 in southwestern Russia.

Your remarks show a profound misunderstanding in suggesting there is, or possibly could be, a connection between the Olympics and exerting any sort of political or diplomatic leverage on the Russian government in resolving the matter involving Edward Snowden, the former intelligence contractor on the run from the U.S. authorities.

Moreover, your remarks — like a stone cast upon a pond — may yet have a ripple effect in ways you did not intend. Though you told NBC you “love” the Olympics, it is a fair question how much you genuinely know, sir, about the actual Olympic movement — not just the pageantry of the Games, what you see on television every two years, but its import and reach throughout our world, and the unique American role in it.

For if you did, the idea of a boycott would never have passed your lips.

In the first place, it is somewhat amazing that you — a Republican who served as co-chair of Arizona Sen. John McCain’s 2008 presidential bid — would reach back in history to an idea backed by a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter. Even Sen. McCain knows an Olympic boycott does not make for sound policy. He told The Hill in that same story, “There’s many things we can do, but I think the experience of canceling the Olympics the last time around wasn’t very good.”

Why isn’t it sound policy? Because punishing hard-working, dedicated athletes — who have nothing to do with global politics or diplomacy — is not the means to any end. What did the 1980 Moscow boycott bring about? The retaliation of a 1984 boycott at the Los Angeles Games by the Soviets and some of their allies. And nothing more.

The irony of the 1980 boycott, of course, sparked by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, is that it is now the U.S. military that finds itself in Afghanistan. What — should the Russians tell the American team not to come to Sochi in February? That wouldn’t be very peaceable, would it? Predictably, senator, your comments sparked outrage and disbelief in Russia.

“America is in an extremely uncomfortable situation because of its surveillance of citizens of the whole world and this has undermined its  reputation as the ‘beacon of democracy,’” Sen. Ruslan Gattarov, chairman of the committee on information society in the Federation Council, told the wire service Ria Novosti. He added, “In the international arena, when the U.S. can’t use its army and navy to strike at a country directly, it starts issuing political statements that belittle itself.”

One of Russia’s three International Olympic Committee members, Shamil Tarpischev, told the R-Sport news agency that your remarks were  “absolutely devoid of understanding of the sports movement as a whole.”

Tarpischev, you should know, is close to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Tarpischev went on to say, “In reality, there is nothing to this apart from tabloid chatter and an effort to attract attention and show off. Sports encompasses the world itself. It is obvious that the senator is not a sportsman himself. In reality, he merely wants to aggravate this situation for some interests of his own.”

What those interests might be remains entirely unclear. At the same time, the interests of the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), and American athletes, are entirely transparent — and, senator, it’s worth asking whether you considered any or all of them before you went public.

The USOC is in the midst of trying to line up support for a bid, probably for 2024. Your comments may well be dismissed by some in the international arena — who better understand American politics — as just one voice among 100 in the U.S. Senate. But, others may not understand and you may have set back the USOC’s efforts amid its three year-long effort to repair and rebuild relationships.

Meanwhile, the odds of the U.S. boycotting the 2014 Sochi Games are, absent something extraordinary between now and Feb. 7, minute.

When the hundreds of young men and women representing Team USA walk out on the evening of Feb. 7 into the opening ceremony, wouldn’t you, senator, want them to receive a warm reception? If you “love” the Olympics, how do you believe your remarks helped advance that?

One final thought:

The security situation in the region is already tense — earlier this month, a Chechen warlord urged militants to disrupt the Games, which he described as “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors” — and American athletes typically draw extra attention at any Olympics, all the more so since 9/11. The Boston Marathon bombing may or may not also be figured into the Sochi security scenario. Why rile things up further, senator?

The last words here, senator, go to Patrick Sandusky, the USOC’s chief communications officer. He issued a statement Wednesday that said, echoing the sentiments in this space, “Olympic boycotts do not work,” adding, “Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict. It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all [of] whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”

“It also deprived millions of Americans of the opportunity to take pride in the achievements of our athletes, and in their dedication and  commitment, at a time when we needed it most,” Sandusky added.

Just, sir, as we do now.

 

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