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OP-ED: Jimmy Carter Had It Right
If ever the International Olympic Committee’s long-held fantasy that their games bring people (and nations) together, the most recent totalitarian country to host the Olympics, Russia, showed that they view the IOC’s games as nothing more than a bunch of propaganda-gaining sporting events, by moving militarily into Ukraine’s Crimea region just a few days after the Olympic flame and spirit went dark.
One would hope that the Russian invasion would teach the IOC a lesson and that awarding the games to totalitarian countries would now cease. But given the IOC’s penchant of awarding its games to authoritarian countries the chance of that happening is close to nil unless its major U.S. sponsors act by insisting that the games be hosted in democratic countries.
The IOC’s sorry history dates back to 1936, when many prominent Americans, including sporting officials, urged a U.S. boycott of the Nazi Olympics because they did not want to provide Hitler with a world-wide propaganda tool, as the Sochi games did for another dictator, Putin.
Those opposing U.S. participation included Judge Jeremiah Mahoney, president of the Amateur Athletic Union, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, New York Governor Al Smith, Massachusetts Governor James Curley, U.S. ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd, George Messersmith, head of the U.S. Legation in Vienna, who also was a U.S. consul in Germany, and Ernst Lee Janacek, a former assistant secretary of the Navy, who was expelled from the IOC because he supported the boycott.
But the U.S.’s Avery Brundage, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who later became president of the IOC, was against a boycott, repeating the IOC’s ostrich-like statements that “politics has no place in sports.” Brundage also said a Jewish-Communist conspiracy was behind the movement for the U.S. to boycott the games.
In addition to giving its blessings to an Olympics in Nazi Germany, the IOC has also awarded its games in recent years to other totalitarian governments: Yugoslavia, China and the Soviet Union in 1980.
For many years, I was against President Carter’s call for a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. But over the years, I’ve slowly changed my mind. The Olympic Games provide a world-wide propaganda vehicle. I now believe that democratic countries should not help promote totalitarian nations’ spurious messages by sending its athletes. The actions of the Russian government during and immediately after the Sochi games convinced me that boycotting Olympic games are sometimes necessary.
I know that “the Olympic dreams” of athletes will be destroyed by boycotts. But, let’s be realistic. The “Olympic dreams” concept has been perpetuated by multi-millions of dollars spent on public relations and advertising campaigns, largely supported by U.S. sponsors.
Are the “Olympic dreams” of athletes more important than the dreams of oppressed people seeking freedom? For those who think so, just visit Russia and see how quickly citizens stop complaining about the taking away of what little freedom they have, as I’ve witnessed, if they suspect an approaching person is a supporter of Putin The Authoritarian. Or ask the millions of people yearning to come to the U.S. to escape their dictatorial governments.
When I was young enough to sprint 30 yards for a pass or hit a fastball (I never could hit a curve), we were told don’t play dirty, play a clean game. Totalitarian states don’t play a clean game. They play dirty, as anyone who cares about freedom knows. The games of the IOC are not more important than the rights of citizens. The Olympic Games in authoritarian countries are much more than sport. They are an endorsement of the country that stages them.
By again partnering with a despotic regime, the IOC once again demonstrated its belief that sports are more important than people.
Like the Nazi Olympics, the Sochi games will be remembered for being played in an atmosphere of intolerance and repression, while the IOC and its corporate American sponsors and world leaders remained largely silent (the exceptions being AT&T which publicly denounced Russia’s anti-gay laws and United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-moon, whose Sochi Olympics speech condemning violence against gays and lesbians received minor media coverage) as innocent people were harassed by police; freedom of expression was denied; human rights were voided, and where members of the punk rock band, Pussy Riot, were horse whipped to prevent them from protesting against Putin.
But most of all, the Sochi Olympics will be remembered for its similarity to the Nazi Olympics. President Obama had it slightly right by not attending the opening ceremonies in Sochi. But I’ve come to the conclusion that Jimmy Carter had it entirely right by calling for a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Russia.
The IOC says that politics has no place in sports. But we know that is a fabrication. Despite its misguided actions of awarding its games to totalitarian countries, I still believe that the Olympic Games are still the most important sporting event in the world.
But the IOC has to realize that powerful countries will not let Lausanne decide for them what’s right and what’s wrong. The question is how many more Sochi’s will it take before the games again become a political pawn between democracies and dictatorships, as was the case during the Cold War era?
In many parts of the world, the fight for freedom is in its infancy. When next awarding its games, the IOC has to decide if finding a host for a sporting event is more important than standing up for freedom. Let’s hope it stands with freedom.
Good people should not be supportive of bad people. And countries that deny freedom to their citizens are bad people, despite their being awarded the Olympics by the IOC. Russia is just the latest example.
The next time the games are played in a totalitarian country the U.S. should not participate and neither should the U.S. sponsors.
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Arthur Solomon was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org