What about the Olympics?

A selection of Moscow Olympic pins brought home from our 1977 trip.

A selection of Moscow Olympic pins brought home from our 1977 trip.

Without a TV it's been a challenge to keep up with the Olympic Games. We catch bits and pieces on video—though NBC is remarkably stingy about sharing—and I try to read the articles pouring out of Sochi. I enjoy the events but care nothing about the medals count, and my long interest in Russia means I'm even more curious about what's happening behind the scenes.

By every account, there are problems, from poor drinking water and unfinished construction, to the killing of homeless dogs. I guess we can't blame lack of snow on Putin, but we can blame him for allowing the rampant corruption that has made this a poorly prepared undertaking, and the most expensive Games in Olympics history.

And while we're pointing fingers let's include Putin's ego for wanting to bring the Winter Olympics to tropical Sochi in the first place. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) should be held accountable too. Why do they award the Games to countries with failing economies (Greece) or terrible human rights records? (China, Russia) Why hand the world's most prestigious event to failed states?

And why do we support the Games, and thus those states, in building outrageously expensive facilities that will never again be used to capacity, while their own people go without critical infrastructure? Is it because we don't care what happens as long as we get our fill of sports and gold medals? Are we that callous? Or are we admitting that if our nobler goals were realized, the Olympics might not find anywhere to go? Maybe that would be a good thing.

I know, heresy.

In 1979 I supported the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. We had recently returned from six weeks driving through the U.S.S.R. and had seen the impoverished conditions and enforced absence of freedom. It wasn't pretty. Having a Soviet booklet in hand that espoused the mixing of sport and politics made writing a column supporting the boycott relatively easy (though I hope my writing skills have improved). You can read it below. I was young then, and less empathetic to the athletes' concerns, but given the issues I suspect I'd still support the boycott.

I was glad a boycott wasn't seriously considered for 2014, because I wanted the long-suffering Russians to succeed. They deserve to. But my reservations about the validity of the Games remains. What was once a celebration of athletic prowess is, increasingly, less about sport and more about overblown, unaffordable one-upmanship and bragging rights for failing governments.

The Olympic creed states, "The Olympic Movement works to expand such lessons beyond the sports arena in the hope of promoting peace and a sense of brotherhood throughout the world." Isn't it time we came up with a better way to do just that?


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The following piece, "Nyet to Moscow," was written by me in 1980 and published in the Baltimore News American, Chicago Tribune, and Denver PostI offer it for historical perspective; it should be remembered that this was during the Cold War when anything Soviet was suspect. There was a good deal of discussion about the proposed boycott at the time, with those opposed arguing that mixing sport and politics was a bad idea. In the end President Carter ordered the boycott, prompting anger and dismay from the athletes. (The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979.)


Nyet to Moscow

Among the souvenirs brought home from a recent visit to Leningrad I found a remarkable bit of propaganda. By Soviet standards it's a slick little publication, obviously designed to please western eyes and taste, and intended to prepare visitors for Moscow's version of the Olympic games. Probably only a few such books have found their way into western hands at this early date, and for that the Kremlin should be thankful. Under the circumstances, the Soviets have handed us some powerful ammunition.

Published by Novosti Press Agency in Moscow, 1979, the booklet, entitled Soviet Sport Questions and Answers, contains the following:

Question: "What is the Soviet view of the western claim that sports and politics don't mix?"

Answer: "The view popular in the West that 'sport is outside politics' finds no support in the USSR. This view is untenable in our country because the Soviet Union and the Soviet people view sport as an instrument of peace, as an important means of improving mutual relations between people, for developing and strengthening friendly contacts and promoting mutual understanding."

Not content with putting their foot in their mouth, the authors happily hand us examples of such athletic politicization.

"When, for instance, Soviet representatives call for the expulsion of the South African and Rhodesian racists from the Olympic movement, this is of course a political move. But this is a policy for the sake of peace, a policy geared to asserting the Olympic ideals that do not permit discrimination in sports.

"When Soviet football players refuse to play a match at the Santiago stadium where the ground is stained with the blood of Chilean patriots, including sportsmen, this is also, of course, politics. It is a policy of struggling and protesting against fascist regimes . . . So, whenever someone says that sport lies outside the framework of political relations, we feel their remark is not a serious one."

If the West took its politics as seriously as does the Russian ruling class, there would be no doubt about using the boycott as a legitimate political weapon. Unfortunately, many of us choose to see the Olympic games enveloped in the soft mist of idealism, instead of the rough-and-tumble world of reality. Or perhaps, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn warned in his 1978 Harvard speech, Americans are losing their courage and willpower; are too much influenced by their "possession of material goods, money and leisure" to risk a moral stand.

While we wallow in plastic abundance, will the Soviets lap up the oil in the Middle East? I doubt if even they know. But it is clear that while we debate and hesitate, they're deporting and arresting dissidents, sending Moscow's children to "summer camp" to protect them from the perils of western influence, and warning residents to beware of infiltrators and propagandists.

I see no justification for honoring this kind of repressive and expansionist government with a successful Olympic celebration. Since the Soviet government appears anxious to welcome politics into the Olympic arena, let us take a page from their own book and declare it only proper for the rest of the world to boycott the Moscow games in consideration of the Afghan patriots (many of whom are undoubtedly sportsmen) whose blood stains the mountains and grasslands of Afghanistan.

A successful boycott would be a grievous would to Soviet pride and Soviet legitimacy. It is the only course the United States can morally take.