In 1968 Tommie Smith and John Charles stood on the podium after winning their gold and bronze medals at the Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City. At what should have been the highest point of their athletic careers, they chose to deflect attention from their achievement and on to the struggle for equal rights in their homeland. As the Star Spangled Banner reverberated throughout the stadium the athletes raised a clenched fist in the air in what has commonly been misquoted as a "Black Power" symbol. Call the salute what you want, but the purpose behind the event was clear – to highlight the growing social unrest in the United States at the time regarding the rights of all Americans.
This moment has gone down in the history as one of the most overtly political statements ever made at a sporting event. Fast forward 20 years to the United States boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow and the subsequent Soviet boycott of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. In 1979 as the Soviet aggression and interference in Afghanistan persisted, Cold War tensions were at a renewed high. President Carter feared that the Games being hosted in Moscow was a direct endorsement of the Soviet Union and its political actions. As such, he called on the United States and its allies to boycott these Olympic Games. As retribution, the Soviet Union and it's allies boycotted the Los Angeles Games four years later. However, both boycotts were abstract failures when compared to the actions of Smith and Charles in 1968.
The reasoning behind these boycotts, and all subsequent boycotts, was flawed. Of all sporting events, the Olympic Games are an overt sign of nationalism. Despite volumes being written on the negative economic impacts the Games have on a city, by the time the Olympic torch crosses the border into the host country, the euphoria of the locals outweighs all negative press. Carter assumed that the ordinary Soviet citizen would connect the US boycott with their government's actions in Afghanistan. In reality, Soviet citizens viewed the lack of US involvement, for whatever reason, as irrelevant. In seeing their athletes sweeping to unchallenged success they were overcome with nationalist pride. They did not view the non-participation of US athletes as taking away from this success. Similarly, American nationals did not stop to question how well their athletes would have placed, were Soviet athletes involved in 1984.
Studying the examples above has led me to believe the US reaction to the request from the LGBT community to not send athletes to the upcoming Sochi Games on the grounds of Russia’s archaic beliefs on gay rights is correct. Despite this request being denied, by not personally attending the Games, President Obama and other major world leaders are subtly snubbing the Russian administration. While these leaders have not made public their reasons for not attending, the sentiment is clear. Obama's idea of sending Billie Jean King – a prominent member of the LGBT community – as one of his delegation, gives two fingers to the Russian legislator. It is also as likely to generate as much public discourse in Russia as a boycott, but does not harm the innocent athletes who have dedicated their lives to participating at the Olympic level.
Where do we draw the line on boycotts? Recently the Guardian reported that 185 Nepalese workers were killed in unsafe working conditions building the 2022 World Cup stadia in Qatar. Is their plight not worthy of boycott? From freedom of religion to censorship, China doesn’t exactly have the best record on human rights either. Where were the calls for a boycott of the Beijing Games?
The point is, by participating we can do more. When Jessie Owens won three gold medals at the 1936 Olympics, he showed Hitler and the German public that he was the greatest athlete in the world and blew up the notion that the Aryan race was somehow superior.
What better way for LGBT athletes to celebrate a victory then to wrap themselves in a rainbow flag and parade their pride in front of the world? Wouldn't this be much better than hoping their absence will be picked up and commented on by the Russian public?
Battling from the inside out is much better than looking in from the cold Russian winter outside.