What was meant to be an example of international cooperation is once again a cause for international bickering.
Since the Russian city of Sochi was awarded the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, there have been concerns in some circles that this would give the spotlight to a country with a poor civil rights record, not to mention a city located very close to the tense Caucasus region. However, it wasn’t until a certain NSA whistleblower decided to take shelter in a Moscow airport that we had a prominent senator suggest that the U.S. should boycott the games.
In an interview with The Hill (a local D.C. paper), Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) was asked if the U.S. ought to consider a boycott of the Sochi Olympics if Russia grants asylum to Edward Snowden. Graham agreed that such an action might be in the cards.
“I would. I would just send the Russians the most unequivocal signal I could send them,” Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked about the possibility of a boycott.
“It might help, because what they’re doing is outrageous,” he said. “We certainly haven’t reset our relationship with Russia in a positive way. At the end of the day, if they grant this guy asylum it’s a breach of the rule of law as we know it and is a slap in the face to the United States.”
In the same article, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a close friend of Graham, signaled that he would not be as enthusiastic about the idea, explaining that, “There’s many things we can do, but I think the experience of canceling the Olympics the last time around wasn’t very good.”
McCain was referring to the U.S.’s boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. A total of 65 countries did not to participate, many of them joining with the American boycott. In response, the Soviet Union and some of its allies boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Thus, it was perhaps not a coincidence that Mary Lou Retton became the first American to win the gold medal in the women’s all-around gymnastics final, competing on home turf without any competition from the formidable Soviet squad.
The day after Graham’s comments, Rep. John Boehner (R-OH), the Speaker of the House of Representatives, gave an even stronger rejection of the boycott idea. He told POLITICO, “I love Sen. Graham, we’ve been close friends for 20 years…but I think he’s dead wrong.” Boehner added, “Why would we want to punish U.S. athletes who have been training for three years to compete in the Olympics over a traitor who cannot find a place to call home?”
Personally, I agree with McCain and Boehner. Boycotting the Olympics because of Snowden would not be a good idea. For good measure, I’ll give you six reasons why.
1. It’s not fair to the athletes
As Boehner mentioned, boycotting the Sochi Olympics would be a major hardship for athletes who have spent years in preparation for this moment. For many of them, the eight year gap between 2010 and 2018 would mean that they never have a chance to represent their country in the world’s greatest sporting event. (All due respect to the World Cup…) That seems an awfully high price to pay to make a political point.
2. Draw attention to human rights issues
The intense spotlight of the world media shines on whoever hosts the Olympics, not only for the three weeks of competition, but for many months beforehand. This could help to create concern about the very human rights abuses that have angered many. Prior to the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the plight of Tibet received greater attention, largely thanks to a series of protests within China and along the route of the Olympic torch. Something similar could happen in Russia this time around.
3. It doesn’t work
Boycotting the 1980 Olympics did not cause the Soviets to withdraw from Afghanistan: years of attacks by local militants armed with U.S. weapons did that. The most obvious response was that the Eastern Bloc simply boycotted the following Summer Olympics on U.S. soil. Of all the things that supposedly brought about the fall of the U.S.S.R., this had to be one of the least relevant. There is no reason to think that the results would be any better this time around.
4. Give a spotlight to U.S. achievement
Of all the modern Olympics, the one that seems the most boycott-able in hindsight is the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin. These games became legendary for the way the Nazi Party used them in propaganda, promoting the idea of a superior Aryan race. But while a boycott certainly would have been justified, it would have been bad for history. Without U.S. participation in the 1936 games, we would have never had Jesse Owens. His legendary performance at those games helped to refute Hitler’s notions of racial superiority and may have even helped to promote racial equality in America. The Olympics provide such an opportunity for the achievements of Americans to be celebrated.
5. Provide an education for U.S. citizens
Those three weeks of intensive media coverage also draw attention to the history and culture of the host nation. When else would Americans receive such an education about Russia? Beyond just promoting tourism, this intense focus on a country can also help all of us to better understand it. Who knows? It may even help to improve bilateral relations.
6. Save the Peacock
The official U.S. broadcaster of the Olympics, NBC, has been through some hard times over the past few years. The embarrassment of having its prime time lineup lampooned, getting beat in the ratings by upstart Fox, making the historic Tonight Show a punch line of jokes, and having the soap opera at the Today Show discussed in all the tabloids have undoubtedly been hard for this once proud network. However, its coverage of the Olympics provides a major ratings boost, allowing it to also relentlessly advertise its shows over a series of affiliated channels. At this point, there’s no guarantee that a U.S. boycott of the games wouldn’t sink NBC, so if you still enjoy seeing Matt Lauer in the morning, beg Mr. Graham to keep his mouth shut.