Doug Robinson: Using the Olympics as a political pawn: Still a bad idea

Published: Monday, July 22 2013 11:44 p.m. MDT

You can tell if a politician has completely run out of foreign-policy ideas when he starts using the "B" word — as in, "Let's boycott the Olympic Games because some country (usually one that starts with an 'R') won't cooperate or play nice."

Lindsey Graham, an influential Republican senator from South Carolina, must be desperate. He recently suggested that the U.S. should consider boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics, set to begin in February in Sochi, Russia.

And here we go again. On a scale of 1-10 for bad ideas, this rates a 10.5, which is why it got the cold shoulder on Capitol Hill.

Graham proposed the boycott idea because Russia so far has refused to extradite Edward Snowden, the man who gave away National Security Agency secrets about a mass surveillance program that many view as a blatant Orwellian invasion of privacy. To some, Snowden is a hero who warned Americans that their rights are being violated; to others, he's a traitor.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter supports Snowden, reportedly saying, "America does not have a functioning democracy at this point in time."

Russia's informal sanction of Snowden — he's living in the Moscow airport — and that country's association with bad guys are reason enough for Graham to call for a boycott.

"I love the Olympics," Graham said, "but I hate what the Russian government is doing throughout the world."

And this has what to do with athletes?

This boycott proposal is like punching your little brother because you got in a fight with a neighbor.

Remember the Carter-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics designed to punish Russia for invading Afghanistan? More than 60 countries heeded the U.S. call to boycott, but the only people hurt by that boycott were the athletes.

Utah's Henry Marsh was one of them. He not only won the 1980 U.S. Olympic Trials in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but he was the only athlete to break an American record and was voted the Outstanding Athlete in a meet that included legends Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses. Marsh had the fastest time in the world heading into the Olympic Games but didn't get to compete.

"It was horrible for the athletes," says Marsh today. "I was fortunate, because I was able to compete in three other Olympics, but for others that was their only shot."

To smooth things over with the athletes who qualified for the Olympic team, Carter invited them to the White House for dinner and a medal. The U.S. also held the Liberty Bell Classic — aka The Olympic Boycott Games — in Philadelphia as an alternative to the Olympics, but it was little consolation.

Reflecting on the boycott years later, Olympic committee spokesman Mike Moran wrote in the Chicago Tribune that 466 American athletes sat out the Olympics while 81 nations competed in Moscow: "219 of them never got another chance to make a future Olympic team, their dreams dying in the embers of a fire that proved to be one of the biggest mistakes ever in using sport and athletes as political pawns."

Don Paige, one of the world's top 800-meter runners in 1980, refused to watch the Moscow 800 race on TV, choosing to stand alone in his parents' backyard while his family watched it. He has never watched the race. At the end of the year he would be ranked No. 1 in the world for the 800. He failed to make the Olympic team four years later and never ran in the Olympics.

Looking back now, Marsh says, "It was ridiculous. It did nothing."

The Russians did not pull out of Afghanistan until 1989.

In 1984, the Russians returned the boycott favor by boycotting the Los Angeles Olympics right down to holding an alterative to the Olympics called the Friendship Games. It all sounds silly decades later.

"A boycott would be even less effective today," says Marsh. "It would not have nearly the impact it did in 1980."

For one thing, in 1980 the Eastern Bloc countries used athletes and sport as validation of their communist government, which is why they instituted a systematic program of performance-enhancing drugs. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, such things have fallen by the wayside. Too, the Olympics is no longer the world-stopping athletic event it once was.

"Back then there was nothing else on TV at the time," says Marsh. "Everyone stopped for the Olympics. It's not the same today. Ask people who the decathlon gold medalist was last year and they won't be able to tell you, but when Bruce Jenner won it everyone knew it. Now (the Olympics) are professional sports. In my day, the Olympians were true amateurs. It was a great storyline. A boycott today would be less effective — the world would go on with out it."

House Speaker John Boehner summed up matters best when he said: "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 can't find a place to call home?"

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

EMAIL: drob@deseretnews.com

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