Boycott Sochi Olympics? Sen. Lindsey Graham’s idea not too sporting, athletes say

Ben Kamisar

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., touched a nerve in athletes and Olympic officials alike Wednesday by floating the possibility of boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

“I love the Olympics, but I hate what the Russian government is doing throughout the world,” Graham told NBC News.

Kevin Bishop, Graham’s communications director, said the senator wasn’t just referring to the asylum application of NSA leaker Edward Snowden but also to Russia’s support of the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian regime. Bishop emphasized that Graham wasn’t specifically calling for a boycott but wanted to raise the idea. Bishop didn’t respond to a request for an interview with Graham.

The mere suggestion of a boycott was enough for the U.S. Olympic Committee to release a statement that said members “strongly oppose” a boycott, drawing comparisons to the 1980 Olympic boycott, in which the United States and 64 other nations refused to send athletes to Moscow at the height of Cold War tensions.

“Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict,” said Patrick Sandusky, U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman. “It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”

The committee makes the final decision on whether to send athletes to the Olympics.

One of those athletes was Ron Neugent, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic swimming team who now works as an orthodontist in Wichita, Kan. Neugent had taken a year off from the University of Kansas to focus on his training, but he lost out on his chance when President Jimmy Carter declared that the United States wouldn’t send a team to Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

“I’m an American. I understand that our country has to do some things for leverage around the world,” Neugent said in an interview Wednesday, “but I am also a human being, and as an athlete, you have a very short window to try and take part in the Olympic Games.”

Despite training once again to qualify for the Olympic team in 1984 – games in Los Angeles that were boycotted by members of the Soviet bloc – Neugent couldn’t qualify, and he lost his chance to compete for his country.

Renaldo Nehemiah found himself in a similar situation. The world-record holder in the 110-meter hurdles, he stayed home with the U.S. Olympic track and field team in 1980, never to reach the games.

“Punishing athletes because the government can’t resolve their issues isn’t right,” he said in an email. “Sports have nothing to do with politics.”

Politicians in Washington haven’t shown strong support for Graham’s suggestion. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed their disagreement to reporters Wednesday.

During the daily White House news briefing, Press Secretary Jay Carney repeatedly declined to comment on the possibility of a boycott. Sochi was a topic last Friday during a telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, but the release mentioned only counter-terrorism cooperation around the games.

Robert Edelman, a professor of Russian history and the history of sport at the University of California, San Diego, noted that the 1980 boycott failed to sway Soviet foreign policy, as the Soviet Union remained in Afghanistan until 1989.

“Jimmy Carter and his administration were very, very naive in the way that they understood (how) international sports works,” he said Wednesday. “We know that when the Soviets were making the decision to move in (to Afghanistan), the question of whether the Olympics would be boycotted or not was simply not discussed.”

And while the United States may currently have some substantial disagreements with Russia over foreign policy, he said, their relationship and Russia’s conduct are nothing like they were during the Cold War. A 2014 boycott would make Carter’s decision seem wise by comparison, Edelman said.

“Certainly the tendency of Putin since his re-election has been – I guess you could call it regressive and more nationalistic,” he said. “But the idea . . . that it is equivalent either to what the Soviet government was like, or especially what Stalin was like, is absurd.”

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By Ben Kamisar
McClatchy Washington Bureau