This morning thousands of athletes from around the world awoke and thought about what they would do today to get themselves closer to the goal of winning a medal at the Olympic Winter Games which open in Sochi, Russia, on Feb. 7, 2014. In three months, most of those athletes will no longer be contenders for the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. Their 2014 Olympic dreams will have ended, or will be focused on the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. It is very hard to qualify for competition at the Olympic Games. Fewer than 3,000 athletes will compete at the Sochi Winter Games; about 250 will be Americans. For United States Olympic Teams, there are usually five to 10 athletes with a realistic chance for every spot that exists on the team. And yet, they work every day to get closer to that goal.
Can you imagine the surprise it must be to wake up one day and hear someone say, "We should boycott the Olympic Games!"? That is exactly what aspiring American Olympians heard this week from one of our United States Senators. Unfortunately, I and 500 other U.S. Olympians shared that experience with athletes throughout the world more than 30 years ago. I remember back in the winter of 1980 when I received a phone call telling me that the President of the United States had said, "We will be boycotting the Olympic Games in Moscow." The journalist asked me, "What do you think about the president saying that we should boycott the Games?" My response was less measured than it is now. As I recall, I questioned the use of the pronoun "we." After all, who is we? Where was we when I was out in the cold and dark at 5:30 a.m. that morning training? What do you mean we will be boycotting the Olympic Games?
Not one penny of federal funds goes into supporting the training or travel of the U.S. Olympic team. The teams always have been and remain supported by the private sector. In my case, the sector was intensely private as I was responsible for my funding. The United States Olympic Committee has come a long way in providing much more support for the athletes who have shown success in the national and international competitions leading up to the Olympic Games. The funds which the USOC raises are from individuals and corporations who are generous in their giving.
The statement that was used for fundraising back in my competitive era was, "America does not send the Olympic team, Americans do!" And thus, it should be up to those Americans who have managed to be selected for the team to decide whether to compete or not. No one else has that right.
There have been attempts over time to use the Olympic Games for purposes other than the friendly competition which is at its heart. In 1980, some politicians sought to use the Olympic Games as a political tool. Hundreds of athletes from nations around the world were denied a once in a lifetime opportunity to compete at the Moscow Games as a result of government mandated boycotts. Somehow boycotting the Moscow Olympic Games was supposed to force the Soviet Union to end its invasion of Afghanistan.
The lives of the athletes were irreparably harmed, but did the boycott lead to any policy changes? No, not any. In fact during one State Department briefing, I asked if one life would be saved if our team did not compete in Moscow. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff responded to my question with one word, "No." Not a single life would be saved. The USSR did eventually withdraw from Afghanistan, but that was 10 years later and had absolutely nothing to do with the boycott.
No doubt there will be those who attempt to keep alive this current call for a boycott. The media love controversy. Fortunately, House Speaker John Boehner has clearly rejected the boycott proposal, asking, "Why would we want to punish U.S. athletes?" The USOC has been equally forthright: "If there are any lessons to be learned from the American boycott of 1980, it is that Olympic boycotts do not work. Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict. It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime. It also deprived millions of Americans of the opportunity to take pride in the achievements of our athletes, and in their dedication and commitment, at a time when we needed it most."
Those words are music to my ears. And, they speak for the athletes in all 204 National Olympic Committees throughout the world. We must not let politicians undermine years of dedicated training for the sake of political grandstanding that will have no effect on policy. Allow our athletes to continue their preparations for their test with history at the Olympic Games.