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: