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February 7, 2014

Hate the politics, not the Games

Olympic boycott will harm the wrong people.

This year’s Winter Olympic Games got underway yesterday morning in Sochi, Russia. In the lead-up to the long-awaited events, a variety of human rights organizations, journalists, celebrities, and regular people have announced their decision to boycott the games, with many calling on others—leaders, companies, viewers, and even athletes—to do the same. The Internet, in particular, abounds with Twitter handles, Facebook pages, opinion pieces, and websites urging people to boycott viewing or attending the games.

Though I have no doubt that the individuals and organizations behind these messages have good intentions, the idea of boycotting the games is ultimately a misguided and futile one.

Boycotting isn’t going to do what most of these groups and people think it’s going to do. But it will hurt athletes—the very people who most deserve this moment in the spotlight.

For one thing, it’s not going to send Russian President Vladimir Putin any kind of political message. Everything about the past several years of preparation for the games—throughout which Russia has been particularly uncooperative with the United States on matters of organization and security—suggests that Putin doesn’t give a dying duck about the United States’ opinion, whether it be that of the government or of the country’s general public. He is not going to interpret the Games’ ratings as a referendum on the way he runs his country. He is just not going to care.

No matter how much we—and that’s a “we” that very much includes myself—oppose Russia’s flagrant human rights violations, especially with respect to LGBT individuals and nonviolent activists, we are not going to accomplish anything on this front by not tuning in.

Nor is boycotting going to stop the rampant corruption plaguing the arenas’ highly overpriced construction, though it’s true that with an estimated price tag of $51 billion, the Sochi Olympics are shaping up to be the single most expensive Olympic Games in history. But everyone who had something to gain from this corrupt planning—a practice of which the Russian government has an extensive history—has already pocketed her money and walked away a happy camper. Boycotting is not going to make the estimated $25–30 billion that was likely lost to bribes and fraudulence miraculously reappear. Indeed, save for some kind of miracle, it’s gone for good.

Nor is not watching going to do anything to prevent a terrorist attack. Though putting a terrorist magnet like Sochi on the globe’s center stage certainly carries a number of inherent risks, the same was true for previous host cities like London and Beijing, not to mention for every other internationally-broadcast mass gathering of people. Plus, the United States is set to provide FBI security assistance at the games—and in the event of an attack, our team has already laid out an escape plan.

Are these precautions foolproof? No. But they’re a heck of a lot more logical than plans to protect competitors via turned-off TV screens thousands of miles away.

So, who will these brilliant boycotts hurt?

They’ll hurt our businesses. NBC, for instance, has paid $1.18 billion for rights to broadcast the games. Meanwhile, Olympic Games sponsors like Coca-Cola, Visa, Panasonic, Samsung, and Procter & Gamble are already facing a major public relations nightmare in addressing calls from groups like RUSA LGBT to boycott the games. Though I’m not usually one to defend big business for, well, anything, it’s completely unfair to socially and financially fault these companies for a decision over which they had virtually no control.

Most importantly, and the reason for this entire piece: These boycotts will hurt the 230 athletes the United States is sending to Sochi—the hardworking men and women who have trained their entire lives for this one opportunity. Lowered ratings will erode not only their current visibility as athletes, but also their future prospects for sponsorships and success. It’s a shame that Russia’s social, political, and human rights problems have taken over the media’s coverage of the Olympic Games; it should be the athletes on whom we focus most.

It bears repeating that none of this is to excuse Russia’s despicable treatment of gays and opposition activists or its corrupt handling of the games, or to suggest that we should momentarily forget about these problems as we watch our athletes compete—we absolutely shouldn’t. But if history is to be any guide, the United States’ boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow proved to be completely futile; this will as well.

Now, to be sure, there are exceptions. Boycotts from the likes of political leaders such as President Barack Obama and German President Joachim Gauck have very different (and very meaningful) political implications than do those from regular people like you or me.

Before you choose to boycott or encourage others to boycott viewing the Olympic Games, understand what it is you’re boycotting. I, for one, know that I’ll be supporting our athletes by tuning in—will you?

Anastasia Golovashkina is a third-year in the College majoring in economics. 

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