The lights are about to go out on Beijing 2008, and -- guess what -- there's already talk of a Georgia-related U.S.-organized boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. That's because 2014 is set for Russia and its resort city of Sochi.
In the Olympics boycott category, this one has legs. The initial anti-Sochi bleats are not from the likes of Mia Farrow, environmentalists, or other cause-mongers, but from Big Players, "realists" and high-ranking officials like Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who are looking for ways to demonstrate that Russia must "pay the price" for its actions in Georgia. It even has John McCain "dramatic gesture" written all over it.
So while a Sochi boycott is still remote, it's serious. This is good news for the boycott industry, because the chance of a movement against Vancouver 2010 is politically laughable, and against London 2012, highly unlikely.
With this potential threat, the epic of politicizing the Games and countries "getting even" gains a fresh life. And a global audience gets to witness the next chapter in a geopolitical saga that had much of its start with the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott (organized by President Jimmy Carter to protest the invasion of Afghanistan) and the 1984 revenge Los Angeles boycott (organized by Soviet leader Konstantin Chernenko).
Peter Ueberroth, the distinguished head of the 1984 LA Games, was quoted at the time in Sports Illustrated, calling Carter and the somewhat-forgotten Chernenko "political hacks who could think of nothing better in the way of foreign policy initiatives than to go after the Games." Indeed, it was Ueberroth's emissary to China who persuaded its leaders to boycott the boycott and reenter the Olympic stage (events, in Ueberroth's recent telling, that ripened into the 2008 hosting).
Are there ways of cooling down the rhetoric?
Maybe the problem is there are too few sanction-like options. As a result, resorting to a boycott becomes the default -- just because of a lack of imagination. What if that kind of action is "disproportionate" -- to use the term President Bush used to characterize Russia's reaction to the Georgia initiative in South Ossetia.?
The IOC and the United States and others could develop alternate sanctions that provide a negotiated way of measuring and pushing symbolic actions.
For example, there's the architecture of Sochi. The IOC could make Russia stand in the figurative corner by depriving the Organizing Committee of commissioning a Bird's Nest-like building moment. The IOC could require that Russia use a Tank-style metaphor to remind the world of its 2008 actions. After all, the resort city was Stalin's summer home, and his famous dacha, once a Stalinist shrine, is now a hotel there.
And there's the Opening Ceremony. One possibility is to have a mandatory hack in and recreate Kremlin May Day gatherings of yore, with missiles and rockets instead of allowing triumphal images of flying athletes and thousands of volunteers performing miracles of lyrical coordination as in Beijing.
The IOC could introduce a new event: perhaps synchronized obeisance, or competitive propaganda (with Georgia and Russia facing off), or "peacekeeper" teams with points awarded for discouraging violence. In a kind of de-Baathification move, the IOC could bar former KGB staffers from acting as referees. Instead of anti-doping tests, athletes could be tested for their patriotism. To punish Georgia for picking a fight in the first instance, South Ossetia and Abkhazia could be recognized by the IOC (Taiwan-style) to field their own Olympics teams, say in the luge.
If a U.S.-organized boycott goes through, our leaders could encourage a repeat of Ted Turner's Goodwill Games -- a substitute venue created after 1984 for athletes who were at their prime but had no place to go because their countries did not participate in the chase for the Gold. If there's a Sochicott, a latter-day Turner could organize alternate games in Ljubljana or Yerevan or Almaty and our medalists could compete with the Kosovars, the Estonians, and whoever else joins the noble protest. It might not be so exciting, but we would have made our statement.