Next week The Nation will publish a special issue on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where homophobic legislation, suppression of dissent and unprecedented corruption threaten to make these perhaps the most politically contentious Olympic games since Berlin in 1936. While we do not believe a boycott of the Olympics is the most effective way to pressure the Russian government to reform—indeed, a far more impactful way would be to follow the example of John Carlos (interviewed by Dave Zirin in the issue), whose photogenic disruption, with Tommie Smith, of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, remains a lasting symbol of athletic civil disobedience—writers in The Nation did support past boycotts in a last-resort attempt to refuse complicity with repression and in the belief that boycotts further the cause of progressive change.

The ultimately unsuccessful movement to boycott the 1936 Olympics was enthusiastically endorsed in a August 1935 Nation editorial under the unequivocal title, “Boycott the Olympics!”. Arguing that such an action “would constitute a reproof which would echo throughout the world and even penetrate the sound-proofed barricade of the Nazi censorship,” the editors wrote:

The simple truth is that, despite official protestations, sport is no more free in Germany than are speech and political activity. Interested groups of Americans should bend every effort to draw our teams out of the games. A boycott of the Olympics would touch the Nazi government in two very tender spots—its prestige and its pocket-book.

The great radical journalist and Nation columnist Heywood Broun agreed that the United States should boycott the Olympic games, but argued in favor of holding local referenda in the US on the subject to ensure democratic support. “Boycotts of one sort or another have certain dangers,” Broun acknowledged, noting, as I have written regarding a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, that they too often hurt precisely those (the athletes) they are intended to help. “But in the case of the Olympic games a decision can be made by the American people themselves. It really is a gesture from the masses of one country to the masses of another.”

Broun went on to urge that another venue—“some place where there was no trace of anti-Semitism whatsoever”—be found to host the games instead of the Third Reich. But, Broun lamented, the United States would have to count itself out:

I wish it were possible that America might assume the role of host and say to the athletes of the world, “Come here for your competition, to America, the land of liberty, the melting pot, the place of refuge for all people. Here the youth of the world can compete in sportsmanship and amity. With us the best mile runner is the best mile runner regardless of any question of race or religion or political point of view.”

“I wish we could say that,” Broun lamented, noting why it would not be true.

Another movement to boycott the Olympics came in 1980, when the United States opted out of participation in the Moscow games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Former director of the American Civil Liberties Union Aryeh Neier, who was born in Nazi Germany the year after the Berlin Olympics, wrote in “The Wrong Reason” (February 9, 1980) that he supported the boycott but as a protest against Russian human rights abuses, not because of the invasion of Afghanistan. The argument offered by the Carter administration, Neier wrote, was hypocritical:

Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan must be condemned, though Jimmy Carter’s protestations would have come with better grace if he had acknowledged its parallels to American military intervention in small countries like Cambodia. But I would favor going to the Olympics despite my revulsion against what the Soviet Union is doing in Afghanistan. I believe that peaceful contacts between peoples are desirable, and taking part in the Olympics would be no endorsement of the invasion, especially if some of the athletes and spectators going to Moscow could be persuaded to take part in a protest demonstration in Red Square.

“A boycott of the Olympics to protest persecution of human-rights activists in the Soviet Union is a different matter,” Neier continued, citing evidence that Russia was rounding up and expelling from Moscow any dissidents that might threaten the image of order and consent it wished to project. Of the January 1980 arrest and forced displacement of Andrei Sakharov, Neier wrote that

his exile made it close to a clean sweep; the Soviet Union has eliminated nearly all opportunities for visitors to the Olympic Games to talk to dissenters. These dissenters have been forced to suffer arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and exile simply because the Olympic Games are being held in Moscow; therefore, a boycott is clearly appropriate.

Although the boycott is instead going forward for President Carter’s reasons, there might still be a way to convey the message that it is intolerable that the Olympic Games should be used as an occasion to repress human rights. If alternate games are held, they could be called the Sakharov Games and the medals to be distributed could bear the likeness of Andrei Sakharov. Those would be prizes worth winning.

Unlike in 1980, Russia’s reprehensible law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” was not passed in anticipation of or preparation for the Olympics—though anticipation of the games was certainly a factor in the December amnesty granting freedom to political prisoners like former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. In 2014, participation in the Sochi games—including taking advantage of the unprecedented platform for activism it provides—will be far more effective than a boycott ever could be.

Check out our upcoming issue next week for reporting by Dave Zirin on LGBT and corruption issues; Alec Luhn reporting from Sochi; former Olympian Samantha Retrosi on corporate ownership of athletes; and much more.

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