By Ginny Gilder
On February 20th of 1980, I was pushing through the most gruesome of training sessions, running—really racing—stairs (nine flights per set, six to ten sets per session) in hot pursuit of my dream: a berth on the U.S. Rowing team scheduled to compete in at the Moscow Olympics in five months. As I reached the top landing, gasping for breath, I huffed to my workout companion, Sally Fisher, “Why are we doing this? Today is Carter’s deadline: the boycott’s official.” Sally shrugged, “I know. But we have two more sets,” and started back down the stairs. Of course I had to keep up. Politics or not, I had a workout to finish.
Those stairs made me strong, and my dream came true, committed beyond reason as I was to that outcome, driven by my passion for rowing—the feel of a fast boat skimming across water, the belief that I could move a slender racing shell faster than anyone else, and the longing to represent my country honorably at the incomparable global celebration of human achievement known as the Olympic Games.
I was no different from today’s Olympians, those who have spent the past two weeks at Sochi, pursuing their dreams of Olympic hardware, driven by similar compulsions. But the ending of their story is a happy one, whether they come home with medals to savor or memories to share, whereas mine was not. They got to compete, but I had to stay home.
The United States Olympic delegation to the 1980 Moscow Games, along with those of over 60 other countries, never made it to the starting line. Dubious credit goes to then-President Jimmy Carter, who wielded a boycott of the OIympics as his administration’s weapon of choice in opposing the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 1979. While he did nothing to derail the host country’s military strategy, Carter succeeded in sacrificing the dreams of thousands of athletes worldwide and blurring the lines between global politics and global community-building.
The Olympics provide a singular opportunity for citizens from every country to convene and connect in the shared pursuit of excellence. It is an extraordinary experience, not just for medalists, not just for competitors, but for spectators as well. Carter hurt the Olympic movement, not the Soviets. He destroyed the dreams of thousands of athletes without saving any Afghani lives. A life without dreams is a life without hope. A life without hope is barely a life.
Carter not only diminished the effect of the 1980 Olympics, but he undermined the power of the 1984 Games, held in Los Angeles four years later, when the still-extant Eastern Bloc retaliated for the United States’ absence in 1980 with a boycott of its own. Again, athletes suffered and dreams died, while the Soviet Union remained ensconced in its military engagement in Afghanistan.
Fast forward 34 years later. This time, on February 20th, the Canadian women’s hockey team defeated the US 3–2 and won gold, a Russian teenager dethroned the reigning ice skating queen, and an American woman won the half pipe event. The US could have skipped these games too, thanks to more poor behavior on the host country’s part. This time, Russia didn’t invade another nation, but diminished the rights of its own citizens when legislators passed a law banning the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” A flagrant violation of the Olympic Charter, which establishes non-discrimination as a fundamental principle of the Olympic Games, the Russian law has created a threatening environment for gay citizens and athletes, regardless of their nationality.
Reaction came swiftly and from all corners. Governments, corporate partners of the Games, and citizens across the world condemned the Russian government. Calls for boycotting the Games sounded in the media, across the internet, and in civic circles. Something had to be done.
President Obama listened and responded. He did not attend Opening Ceremonies, thereby denying Russia the prestige and pedigree that typically accrues to the host country. In his stead, Obama sent openly gay delegates, sending a flagrant message of dissent without diminishing the power of the moment. In fact, he used the might of the Olympic Games, the global reach of the Opening Ceremonies, beamed into hundreds of millions of homes across the planet to deliver the message of human rights, without rancor, with dignity.
No athletes’ Olympic dreams died this time. Maybe that seems trivial; after all, it’s only sports, right? How important is winning a curling match, a ski race, a skating competition? Sports: human expression that defies national boundaries, dreams of athletic greatness that inspire others to dreams of different kinds of greatness, the foundation of human progress. That’s the power of the Olympic flame, igniting human passion to strive; that’s the power our president used to promote the dream of equality. I’m so glad he didn’t snuff the flame with the chill waters of political expediency.