In a few weeks, some of the finest athletes in the world will gather for the quadrennial Winter Olympic festival in Sochi, Russia. The last time the Olympics were held in Russia, it was still the Soviet Union, and the Americans, among other nations, did not send a team to compete. President Jimmy Carter decided that the United States would not participate on Soviet soil while the Soviet troops were engaged in armed hostilities in its neighboring country to the south, Afghanistan. Geo-politics trumped global athletics. It is not surprising that once again in 2014 politics and sports are inextricably intertwined.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman, has used the coming Olympics as a forum for emphasizing to the world the "evils" of homosexuality. Russia has enacted a law that bans the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors. Gay activists have been arrested and hate crimes have multiplied. Those in the United States who have recently discovered that the aegis of equality covers sexual identity as well as race, gender, national origin and other suspect categories find Putin's stand offensive. Anyone who would use Sochi as an occasion for protest, however, will be subject to arrest under the Russian edict.
Few have suggested that the United States should once again boycott the Olympics. Most, however, favor symbolic actions that will loudly proclaim that we are not homophobic -- at least not anymore. The problem with that stance is that it runs against the deep strain in the American ethos that agrees with Putin's harsh position on the rights of gays and lesbians. Only a minority of American states bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, while a majority bans marriage equality in their state constitutions. Hypocrisy has never been exclusively an American trait, but we are very good at it.
The history of the modern Olympics is filled with examples of politically-motivated boycotts and exclusions. After both the First and Second World Wars, the defeated nations were barred from the Games for various periods of time. At the 1956 Melbourne Games, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and Liechtenstein boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq also did not attend those Games as a result of the Suez invasion. The People's Republic of China did not attend because of the inclusion of a team from Taiwan. In 1976, 22 African nations boycotted the Montreal Games in protest because athletes from New Zealand were allowed to participate after its rugby team had toured apartheid South Africa.
The most-famous non-boycott of the Olympics occurred in 1936, when Herr Hitler hosted both the Winter and the Summer Games in his new Germany. The world was well aware of Hitler's plans for a thorough ethnic cleansing followed by world domination. However, the head of the United States Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, had found much to be desired in the economic program of the National Socialists, and he fought a successful political battle to preserve American participation in the Nazi festival. The Nazi Games are best remembered for the extraordinary performance of the son of a black sharecropper, Jesse Owen, who collected four gold medals in Berlin. Although the Olympics proved a great political triumph for Hitler and members of the German team collected the most medals, it was the Americans who rewrote the history after we triumphed on the battlefield against the Wehrmacht. Only Owens is remembered today.
The story of Jesse Owens offers a telling example for those who would confront the current Russian leadership. We should make our stance clear in words and in deeds and plainly state our revulsion with Russian homophobic policies. Despite our belated arrival on the right side of issues of equality, we must stand strong against discrimination of any kind. We must cleanse ourselves of this scourge here at home at the same time we chastise others in the world about their transgressions. And we must triumph on the field of play.
Jimmy Carter's boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980 proved to be a futile effort in global politics. Although he characterized the Soviets' military adventure in Afghanistan as apocalyptic, he was only willing to sacrifice America's athletes at the altar of his own moralism. It would have been better to participate in the Games, plainly state our position on the invasion of Afghanistan, and then triumph in the contests of sport. We should do the same in Sochi, disassociate ourselves from Soviet policy and return home with medals in hand.