Let them play: Don’t boycott Sochi Olympics
Published: Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, October 22, 2013 22:10
Bruce Kennedy may be the best javelin thrower to never compete in the Olympics. In 1972, Kennedy was the best javelin thrower in Rhodesia, a small African nation which is now known as Zimbabwe. However, African nations threatened to boycott the Olympics in Munich that year if Rhodesia was allowed to compete. This was because the Rhodesian government had a policy of racial separation similar to apartheid South Africa.
Kennedy was already in Munich when the International Olympic Committee disqualified the Rhodesian delegation. In 1976, Kennedy was again unable to participate for Rhodesia, as the team was once again suspended. By 1980, Kennedy was a world-class athlete and had become an American citizen. He planned to represent the United States at the Olympics in Moscow. However, the United States boycotted these Olympics and so Kennedy once again could not participate. Ironically, the oppressive Rhodesian government had fallen, and the country was allowed to participate in the Olympics under its new name, Zimbabwe. By 1984, Kennedy was past his prime and did not make the U.S. Olympic team.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Kennedy’s best throw in 1980 was 287 feet. This would have been good enough for an Olympic bronze medal in an event long dominated by communist European countries. It would have sent a powerful message to the Warsaw Pact powers while at the same time allowing Kennedy to realize his dream. Instead, Kennedy was punished for the sins of political leaders not once, not twice, but three separate times.
Now, various groups are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia as a result of Russia’s notorious anti-gay laws which ban even speaking in support of homosexuality. Furthermore, Russia plans to enforce these laws during the Olympics. Like the 1980 boycott, this will mainly hurt the athletes who represent their countries, rather than hurting Russia itself.
It would send a much more powerful message against Russia’s horrific laws if nations send their best athletes, including openly gay ones like New Zealand short track speed skater Blake Skjellerup, to compete in Sochi.
It is true that Russia’s laws and practices treat homosexuals as less than human. It is true that this needs to change. Other nations should put pressure on Russia to change these laws. However, a boycott is not the way to do so. If Skjellerup performs well in Sochi, then some Russians will realize that perfectly productive and normal human beings can be gay.
Although Skjellerup is probably not good enough to win a medal, he competes in a sport that is notorious for unpredictable results, so it is plausible that he will wind up on the medal podium. Just as Kennedy could have medaled in a sport dominated by the communists, Skjellerup may have a chance to smash Russian stereotypes and win a medal in his sport’s biggest competition. None of this will happen if New Zealand boycotts the Olympics and Skjellerup is forced to stay home.
The 1936 Olympics were held in Berlin, in Nazi Germany. There was significant pressure to boycott these Olympics due to Hitler’s policies. Hitler’s policies were far worse than Russia’s law, but only Spain ultimately boycotted.
These Olympics featured American Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in track and field. Owens was African-American, which made him less than human in the eyes of the Nazis. Owens certainly didn’t fit in with the “Aryan purity” idea of the Nazis, and by competing and dominating he sent a powerful message. Had the United States boycotted, this would never have happened.
All athletes, regardless of sexual orientation, dream of competing in the Olympics. It is not their fault that Russia’s government passes oppressive laws. Furthermore, the athletes who would be impacted are not Russian and have no responsibility whatsoever for the government or its policies. By preventing them from competing in Sochi, their life dream has been denied. Many of them will never get another chance. Most athletes cannot extend their peak to cover two Olympiads and will be past their prime by the 2018 Olympics. Athletes in a few sports, like figure skating, will be too old to compete at all.
Boycotting the Olympics will hurt the athletes far more than it will hurt Russia. While Russia must be pressured to repeal its anti-gay laws, an Olympic boycott is not the way to do it.