Sending the Russians just the right Olympic message

Presidential delegation to Sochi says intolerance is unacceptable

Billie Jean King (l) and Caitlin Cahow, two of the openly gay athletes on the Presidential delegation to Sochi.  (Reuters composite by Mario Anzuoni)

Billie Jean King (l) and Caitlin Cahow, two of the openly gay athletes on the Presidential delegation to Sochi. ((Reuters composite by Mario Anzuoni) / December 18, 2013)

The official presidential delegation to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics the White House announced this week sends just the right message.

Intolerance is not acceptable.

If the decision to have neither President Barack Obama nor first lady Michelle Obama, nor Vice President Joe Biden nor any cabinet member attend the 2014 Winter Games also is meant to be a slap in the faces of both Russian President Vladimir Putin and the International Olympic Committee, they are getting exactly what they deserve.

Putin earned the disdain for presiding over a country whose legislature unanimously voted against human rights with its anti-gay laws, a country that is tolerating violence against its LGBT community, harassing Olympic critics, abusing and endangering Sochi residents and the workers who have built Sochi’s Olympic projects.

The IOC earned it for hiding behind its “neutrality.” It cites the utterly ridiculous shibboleth that the Olympics have nothing to do with politics to explain its decision not to make a loud outcry against Russian laws that clearly violate (and devalue) the section of the Olympic Charter saying:

“Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

(Funny how the IOC still managed to take the high moral ground and ban South Africa for 32 years because of its past legal racial discrimination.)

The rainbow U.S. delegation going to Sochi now has three openly gay athletes as its most noteworthy members: Olympic figure skating champion Brian Boitano; tennis great Billie Jean King; and two-time Olympic ice hockey medalist Caitlin Cahow.

Its composition is the perfect example of the values the IOC is supposed to espouse.

And doesn’t having our top elected officials stay home ironically help keep politics out of the Olympics?

A journalist with years of experience on the Olympic beat, Alan Abrahamson, wrote “an open letter to President Obama” on Tuesday in which he cited several reasons for disagreeing with the absence of the major U.S. political figures from the delegation.

One was it might hurt a future U.S. bid to be Olympic host.

Another was it might turn judges against U.S. athletes in Sochi, especially in subjective sports.

If small-minded members of the IOC vote for taking more pounds of U.S. bid city flesh, so be it.

Remember, those members include the same self-appointed grandees whose undies were in a swivet because they had to wait on a bus for security reasons while President Obama’s plane arrived in Copenhagen, just in time for the IOC to use such petty grievances as an excuse to humiliate Chicago’s 2016 Olympic bid — and, by extension, the president — with a first-round defeat.

Remember this is the same IOC that never rejects the massive amounts of money it gets from U.S. television and U.S.-headquartered global sponsors.

Human rights or being an Olympic host? Hmm, I wonder which is more important.

And what would it say about Russia and purported Olympic ideals if there were efforts to screw U.S. athletes? After all, the opening ceremony includes an oath swearing in which judges “promise that we shall officiate in these Olympic Games with complete impartiality, respecting and abiding by the rules which govern them in the true spirit of sportsmanship.’’

Back to the issue at hand. What if the Russian anti-gay legislation also referred to Jews and/or blacks? Given the centuries-old, still virulent anti-Semitism in Russia and given the blatant racism frequently on display in Russian soccer stadiums, it isn’t hard to imagine such laws passing in Putin’s puppet parliament.

While I am loath to use the nuclear option, didn’t the Nazis have similar attitudes toward homosexuals, whom they arrested by the tens of thousands? Intolerance is a horrible and slippery slope.

Yes, our own country still has severe shortcomings on issues of both race and LGBT equality, despite the enormous progress in both public and legal acceptance of gays in the United States. Do our failings mean we have forfeited the right to call out others, either directly or symbolically, who are going backward on these matters? Absolutely not.

Sochi will be my 17th Olympic Games as a journalist. I prize the Olympics and Olympic athletes, and a succession of Tribune editors has considered the Olympics important enough that I have spent the last 26 years focusing nearly all my professional attention on them.

For all their problems, for all the pomposity and occasional scandal, the gigantism and financial excess, the Olympic Games engender feelings of harmony and universality during the 17 days of Olympic competition that are a brief moment of seeing our better nature as human beings.

Russia is sadly just the latest to denature that experience.

I don’t presume to try to read President Obama’s mind.

But it’s clear that one can take the moral high ground simply by staying put.

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil

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