policy games

The last time America boycotted the Russian Olympics, it accomplished nothing

January 28, 2014
January 28, 2014

The media has been denouncing the Sochi Olympics in terms that sometimes border on the apocalyptic. While the campaign for a boycott hasn’t gained traction among the general public, there have nonetheless been calls for one from high profile celebrities and politicians like Hugh Laurie, Harvey Fierstein, and the president of Germany. As the opening of the games gets closer, the advocates of a boycott will only become more prominent.

So should all right-thinking people refuse to partake in a spectacle that, more than anything else, seems to be an expression of Vladimir Putin’s personal will?

In one sense the decision of whether or not to participate in Sochi is a personal, moral one. If you feel that showing up to watch the events, or even watching them on TV, somehow makes you complicit in the human rights violations of Russia’s government, then you shouldn’t watch.

But “boycott” means a lot more than deciding simply not to watch an event. That’s a passive course of action. A boycott is an active one. A boycott, if taken to its logical conclusion, means taking steps that would prohibit others from participating in Sochi even if they actually wanted to.

An active boycott is exactly what happened in 1980, the last time the Olympics were held in what is now the Russian Federation. To protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the United States prohibited all American athletes from competing in Moscow. There were no exceptions, there was no flexibility, there wasn’t even really much of a debate. Athletes were told they weren’t allowed to go, and that was that.

When weighing the advisability of a full-scale boycott, it’s worth considering what the American boycott in 1980 accomplished: nothing. It had all the efficacy of a 5-year-old’s temper tantrum. The boycott did a lot to harm American athletes, but nothing to harm the Soviet Union or cause it to end its occupation of Afghanistan, which continued for another eight full years. It was a vacuous, pointless gesture that came to symbolize the Carter administration’s diffidence in conducting foreign policy.

Many of the athletes who are set to compete in Sochi will never get another chance to compete on such a stage, and if they genuinely want to I don’t see any reason to stop them. If you don’t want to watch the Sochi games, don’t watch the Sochi games. If you want to speak out against Russia’s (unjustifiable) laws against “gay propaganda” go right ahead. But a boycott isn’t going to happen and, even if it did, it wouldn’t accomplish anything.

You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkAdomanis. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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