Your Heart is in the Right Place, But Boycotting the Olympics Won't Work


From the age of 12 I dreamed of going to the Olympics. My sport was judo, which outside of the martial-arts world isn’t well known in the United States. My dreams really kicked into high gear at the age of 17, when I began training full-time after completing my junior year of high school. Judo was what I thought about from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I was fortunate that I grew up around Olympians in the sport and was fortunate to have my heroes in front of me every time I went to practice, so for me the dream felt tangible. While I would ultimately fall short twice (in 2008 and 2012), the experience of trying very much shaped who I am as a human being. So when there are calls to boycott the games, it is difficult for me to swallow. The Olympics produce amazing stories of both physical prowess and mental toughness that inspire us. Historically, trying to politicize the Olympics doesn’t have much impact, and it won't in Sochi 2014 either.

The 2008 games in particular were intensely politicized. There was a substantial push to boycott the games due to issues surrounding China's occupation of Tibet. The slogan “Games Over, Free Tibet” was common. In response, I remember making a Facebook group that grew to over 3,000 people simply titled, “Do Not Boycott the 2008 Olympics” for the simple reason that it punishes the athletes and won’t do much to change the policies of the host country. The group’s numbers swelled rapidly and soon I found myself moderating what had become a bizarre forum of Olympic spirit and debates over whether or not Tibet was part of China (most of the members at the time were from China). The flip side was the Team Darfur movement, of which I was a part of. That movement's objective was to raise awareness of the plight surrounding people in Darfur, and the role China was playing in giving aid to the Sudanese government. This was not a call to boycott the games, simply a call for awareness. After the games were over, and the calls for a boycott and Team Darfur lost air time, I changed the name of the Facebook group to “Do Not Politicize the Olympic Games.” The games are meant to be a symbol of world unity, and politicizing them spoils it.    

The ultimate examples of politicized Olympics were the 1980 and 1984 games. The 1980 Olympics were boycotted by the United States and our allies over Soviet Russia's invasion of Afghanistan. Anyone who watched the movie “Miracle,” about the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Winter Olympics, will no doubt remember this.  In response, the Soviet Union and some of its allies boycotted the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Our attempt to shame the Soviets out of Afghanistan failed. They wouldn’t begin to look into exiting till 1985, with final withdrawals beginning in mid-1988. The entire conflict is sometimes compared to the United States and Vietnam. 

While the boycott had little impact on the conflict it concerned itself with, it punished the athletes who would be involved. Japanese judo legend Yasuhiro Yamashita went on national television in tears begging his country to reconsider taking part in the boycott. At the beginning of a time period when American judo could have won multiple Olympic medals (something the U.S. would not accomplish until 24 years later), a team that included a young Mike Swain (who’d go on to to make three world championship final appearances and win an Olympic bronze) would never get their opportunity. Only a handful of those athletes would return for the 1984 games. 

I greatly sympathize with the LGBT community in Russia. Russia's crackdown on gays and lesbians and those who support their rights is quite simply not right in any sense. The idea that there are likely great athletes competing for Russia who cannot be honest to those around them about who they are wouldn’t be surprising. If you want to do something about it, though, boycotting the coming winter games isn’t the way to go about it. It simply causes harm to people who already sacrifice an extraordinary amount for often little payoff. Remember, for every Michael Phelps there are many athletes you’ll never hear of. Don’t punish them for the inhumanity caused by something outside their control.