A Sochi boycott would only hurt U.S. athletes

USA players celebrate after a goal by Zach USA players celebrate after a goal by Zach Parise in the third period of the men's gold medal ice hockey game against Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photo Credit: AP, 2010

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

This is what could be called ding-dong diplomacy. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), in order to "just send the Russians the most unequivocal signal" if that nation should grant leaker Edward Snowden's appeal for asylum, this week suggested that the United States boycott February's Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Beyond a ham-handed stab at political negotiation, such a boycott is historically bankrupt and thoroughly illogical. The idea that not sending some 250 American athletes to the quadrennial sleigh ride would somehow impact the Snowden situation repeatedly has been disproved -- most notably when President Jimmy Carter ordered the 1980 Moscow Olympic boycott to end the then-Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.

The Soviets indeed withdrew from Afghanistan. Ten years later. So the only real consequence of Carter's action, aside from angering a bunch of potential Olympians and destroying NBC's planned coverage, was the Soviets' equally empty revenge -- boycotting the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

"The political objective of a boycott -- a concerted action directed against a target -- is to inflict some damage on the intended target of the boycott," longtime International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound wrote in his 2004 book, "Inside the Olympics."

But Olympic boycotts, Pound argued, "have precisely the opposite effect. It is as if the political leaders are saying to the target that they are willing to inflict punishment upon themselves, through innocent Olympic athletes who will be denied the opportunity to participate, in order to punish the target country."

Current IOC member Anita DeFrantz, who was training for her second Olympics in rowing when the Carter administration declared, "We will be boycotting the Olympic Games in Moscow," recalled in an essay for the Huffington Post Saturday that she "questioned the use of the pronoun 'we.'

"After all, who is 'we'?" she wrote. "Where was 'we' when I was out in the cold and dark at 5:30 a.m. that morning training? What do you mean 'we' will be boycotting the Olympic Games?"

More to the point, perhaps, DeFrantz related how, during a State Department briefing, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff admitted to her that not a single life would be saved in the USSR-Afghanistan conflict by the 1980 boycott.

This is not to parrot the completely naive argument that there is no room in sports for politics. On the contrary, sports is as political as any human activity and the Olympics, given its over-the-top international profile, may be the world's best soapbox, playing well to the grievances of dissidents and the self-interest of image makers.

In fact, to stay away from the Olympics via a boycott is to forfeit the kind of megaphone Sen. Graham apparently seeks. And it is a convoluted chain of thought that attempts connecting Edward Snowden's potential asylum with lugers and figure skaters and cross-country skiers.

Was Graham seeing a correlation between "snow" and "Snowden?"

My friend Jay Weiner, a former Olympic reporter, recalled a far more rational use of sports boycotts employed by the late Dennis Brutus, a giant figure in South Africa's anti-apartheid movement. Brutus, who led the Olympic banishment of South African between 1960 and 1992, once explained to Weiner that one should only use a sporting event as a tool when the boycott directly involves a sports issue. In South Africa's case, that was South African's banning of black athletes from its national teams.

In his book, Pound concluded that Olympic boycotts "are political failures; that the governments who order them appear inept; that ineptness is the most terrible political sin; and that no politician wishes to appear to be inept."

Indeed, Graham barely had aired his boycott proposal before it was shot down by House Speaker John Boehner ("dead wrong") and White House spokesman Jay Carney (" . . . not an issue right now because we're engaged with the Russians and other governments in helping bring about a positive resolution to this matter.")

The U.S. Olympic Committee, which reluctantly had caved in to Jimmy Carter's boycott order in 1980, was just as quick to reject Graham's gesture.

If an American senator really wants to use sports to twist Vladimir Putin's arm in the Snowden deal -- and why not? Sports and politics always mix -- he could use something closer to the 1971 table tennis model, in which a U.S. team's competitive participation in China thawed relations between the two countries after a 22-year cold war.

That was the famous Ping-Pong Diplomacy. (With a "P.")

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