Uh-oh, here we go again. Don't you hate when they start talking about boycotting the Olympics?

You know the drill: When the going gets tough, when nobody can figure out anything better to do, hold the Olympics hostage.

With the Beijing Olympics set for this summer, everyone with a cause is coming out of the woodwork to hold the Games as hostage — environmentalists, human rights activists, the Tibet crowd (what, no PETA?). The usual celebrity crowd — Richard Gere, Mia Farrow, the Dalai Lama, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney — is leading the charge against the war in Burma, genocide in Darfur, air pollution in China, and China's 57-year rule of Tibet.

Not that their causes aren't just and good — just misdirected.

Just a few questions: Isn't it a sign of diplomatic and political failure that these causes have nothing stronger to barter with than an athletic event?

Isn't this something the IOC should have considered before they ever made Beijing the host?

Then again, is there any place on Earth perfect enough to host an Olympics these days and thus able to avoid a boycott?

Here's one reason you do anything except boycott: Henry Marsh's flag ceremony.

In 1979, Marsh, a Utah resident and four-time Olympic distance runner, competed in a competition in Moscow called Spartikiade, which was a tune-up for the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. Marsh won the 3,000-meter steeplechase, but what happened afterward is what he remembers most. He stood atop the awards podium and listened to the U.S. national anthem play while the American flag was raised in Lenin Stadium at the height of the Cold War.

Where else could such a thing have occurred?

"It was one of the highlights of my career," says Marsh. "I had goose bumps. That symbolizes more than anything why we need to keep politics out of it."

A year later, the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Olympics and took some 60 nations with them to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. For Marsh, as well as thousands of other athletes, it was a lost opportunity. In 1980, he had the fastest time in the world in the steeplechase. He not only won the U.S. Olympic Trials but also produced an American record and was voted Outstanding Athlete of the competition.

But he never got to compete in the Olympics.

"It was stupid," says Marsh. "The only people hurt by the boycott were the athletes."

The Soviets left Afghanistan eight years later. They didn't leave because of the boycott; they left because they couldn't beat Afghan insurgents. Ironically, the U.S. provided financial support to those insurgents, some of whom are now among the terrorists the U.S. is fighting in the Middle East.

In Marsh's view, those who boycott the Olympics to protest a cause have it all backward. Their cause would be better served by having an Olympics, not by destroying it.

"Barriers are broken down by the Olympics," he says. "To mingle athletes and people from around the world does more to break down human rights problems than a boycott. All a boycott does is create more tension. You need that interaction."

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, would have agreed with Marsh. "The Olympic Games, with the ancient (Greeks), controlled athletics and promoted peace," he wrote in 1896. "Is it not visionary to look to them for similar benefactions in the future?"

What other event brings nations together in so many ways — corporations, politicians, athletes, media, tourists and cultures?

"We believe the boycott doesn't solve anything," said International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge last week, referring to threats over the Tibet issue.

"Almost any position people take about human rights, they should have as many ties as possible to China," said Pete Ueberroth, head of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "But they have to be real ties — ties between athletes, ties between business, ties between friends and tourists."

The Olympics have been chronically politicized of course — Hitler and his Aryan theory in '36, Tommie Smith and Juan Carlos and their black power salute in '68, Black September's murder and mayhem in '72, national boycotts in '56, '76, '80 and '84.

For his part, Marsh never had much of a choice. He was chairman of the Athlete's Advisory Council, which controlled 20 percent of the vote of the USOC. In 1980, Marsh was summoned to the White House, where National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski stated the Carter administration's case for a boycott.

"They put the full-court press on us," recalls Marsh. "The athletes were torn; it was a no-win position. The Olympic committee depends on them for public funding. We had to support the president publicly."

Let's hope that scene doesn't replay itself this year.


Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to [email protected].