When Adolf Hitler demanded that no blacks or Jews participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics he was hosting, many Western countries weighed the possibility of a boycott. Hitler eventually backed down, but he still maintained his “Aryan superiority” rhetoric and even sent the chief of police to arrest and detain every Gypsy in Berlin. Everyone knew the atrocities he was committing, but the United States still decided to compete. Only Spain and the U.S.S.R. did not attend those Summer Olympics.
Vladimir Putin is certainly no Hitler and modern Russia is nothing like Nazi Germany, but the underlying principle is the same: hosting an Olympics is a mighty weapon and one that other countries don’t want to confront. Every country wants to let their athletes participate at almost any cost, so boycotting an Olympics, a World Cup, any prestigious global competition, is essentially political suicide. Jimmy Carter presided over the U.S. when they rejected the 1980 U.S.S.R. Olympics after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Of course it was not an easy decision, but it frustrated both viewers and the athletes, many of whom would never again be able to compete in an Olympics. In November of the same year, Jimmy Carter lost a landslide reelection.
What’s special about the Olympics is that it’s not vulnerable to the usual types of boycotts. Usually, if you are dissatisfied with something, you can simply not give it your time or your money. In most instances, within our capitalist framework, you can theoretically engineer either the bankruptcy or success of a business through thoughtful purchasing practices en masse. This is the idea behind “dollar voting.”
The trouble with boycotting the Olympics is that it’s not a question of ethical consumption.
Whether television ratings are high or if they are low will not affect how much money the Russian government makes. The Olympics are almost always a net-loss or net-neutral pursuit for the host country. Having the Olympics in your country is more about the global prestige, the temporary political immunity, and the ability to showcase modernity and wealth.
That means that when we flip on a hockey match this weekend, we’re not, in any tangible way saying, “Persecution of the LGBT community is acceptable” or “Edward Snowden is a hero and deserves asylum” or “We support Syria’s Assad regime,” or any of the other reasons that Americans have decided are grounds for an Olympic boycott. What we are saying when we flip on the TV to watch the Olympics is, “We want to watch top-tier sports” (or, at the very worst, “We want to laugh at the gross under-preparedness of this Russian Olympic Committee”).
But does it matter whether there’s a tangible effect from a boycott? Does not watching the Olympics send a moral message that goes beyond questions of ethical consumption or monetary support?
Some people have claimed that a boycott would at least make the Olympics Committee think twice about selecting human rights abusing countries in the future. This kind of thinking is akin to an athlete crying for a foul, knowing that although the call won’t go his way this time, on the next play the referee might be more sympathetic to his complaints.
Assumedly with this logic in mind, boycotts have in fact been tried. A few months back, the well-known gay rights advocate Dan Savage called for a boycott of Russian vodka, writing, “But [Olympic] boycott or no [Olympic] boycott there is something we can do right here, right now, in Seattle and other U.S. cities to show our solidarity with Russian queers and their allies and to help to draw international attention to the persecution of gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, trans people, and straight allies in Putin’s increasingly fascistic Russia: Dump Russian vodka.”
Yet this kind of boycott shows a misunderstanding of the situation. Just because a bar in Seattle or New York doesn’t stock Stolichnaya — the brand of vodka Savage specifically targets in his proposed boycott — does not affect any of the ludicrous LGBT laws in Russia. Because ethical consumption does not apply to the Olympics, because our time watching the Olympics and the advertising revenue it generates, does not affect the Russian government in any way, these types of money-based boycotts are rendered useless.
Putin has already released the controversial band Pussy Riot, and they’ve vaguely promised that their “homosexual propaganda” laws won’t apply to Olympic athletes. So long as the Olympics happen — and it will happen — Putin and Russia will come out of this with an unscathed image — possibly even an improved one. Vodka or viewing boycotts are entirely disassociated from any sort of political impact.
That doesn’t mean everyone understands this though. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham petitioned the U.S. Olympic Committee to spurn the Sochi Games, not for LGBT rights infractions, but for their protection of Edward Snowden. The Committee’s response, which cited Jimmy Carter’s boycott decision, was to the point, and, rather unfortunately, quite true:
“Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict. It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Even Speaker of the House John Boehner said of Senator Graham’s proposal, “I think he’s dead wrong… Why would we want to punish U.S. athletes who’ve been training for three years to compete in the Olympics over a traitor who can’t find a place to call home?”
Speaker Boehner’s rebuke elucidates perhaps the key to why the U.S. did not boycott the Olympics: too many Americans would be frustrated that their athletes were not allowed to compete — a frustration that could manifest itself in the next elections. Whether or not this is a good enough reason to participate in an Olympics hosted by a human rights abusing question is another issue entirely. But there is one thing that’s for certain in politics: getting reelected is always your top priority.
Like Speaker Boehner, President Obama knows that any sort of boycott would just end up hurting the U.S. more than Russia. His actions, therefore, have taken an appropriate middle ground. He has provided a harsh finger wagging to the Russian government by both not attending and by sending a special “V.I.P. delegation” of predominately gay athletes.
How far though do symbolic gestures go though and is there even a point of issuing them? Does it matter if you don’t watch the Olympics — are you somehow ethically superior to those who choose to watch?
Well, the trouble with this kind of passive activism (indeed, it seems oxymoronic) is that it won’t change anything. It won’t better the plight of the Russian LGBT community or push Snowden out of Russian protection. Ethical consumption is not applicable, so what it could perhaps do is make you feel like a better person. But the question that those abstaining from the Olympics must ask is: am I actually changing anything — whether right now or in the future — or am I merely setting myself up for a position of moral superiority, which, in the end, is actually quite empty?