Greg Louganis was on top of the world in 1980. He had followed a silver medal in the 10-meter platform at the 1976 Olympics with a gold medal at the 1978 World Championships. He then swept gold in the 1979 Pan American Games and was taking aim at history in the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.
That's when President Jimmy Carter put that history on hold, issuing a fruitless American boycott of those Olympic Games in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Olympic dreams of athletes like Louganis, who had been working all his life for Olympic gold, were dashed that year because of politics.
Now some LGBT activists want the United States and other nations to boycott next year's Winter Olmpics in Sochi, Russia, because of that country's anti-gay policies.
That boycott must not happen.
No athlete good enough to compete in the Olympics should ever be told by her country that she cannot fulfill her lifelong dream. The Olympics aren't about politics; they're about putting politics aside and competing in friendship. The LGBT community needs to go after politicians and government officials to effect change in Russia and leave the future of Olympic athletes alone.
Louganis' story ended just fine, making history in 1984 and 1988 when he swept gold in back-to-back Games (though it would have been awe-inspiring to see if he could have three-peated his two events).
Yet for so many athletes, they get one shot at Olympic participation. Most of them are like openly gay gymnast Josh Dixon, who narrowly missed the U.S. Olympic team last year. Josh has put in over a decade of hard work for a shot at the Olympics. He has sacrificed, telling me last year he's barely dated because of his dedication to the sport.
Some want to tell athletes like Josh that all their hard work could be for naught because of a boycott? Taking that opportunity away from them would be a crime.
"To have that work taken away, let alone the time it took to reach such a level, would be gut-wrenching," Dixon told the Washington Blade.
To be sure, Russian anti-LGBT policies are a disgrace to their nation. The lower house of the Russian parliament recently voted, 436 to 0, to impose jail terms and fines for anyone holding LGBT pride events or distributing literature about the LGBT community to minors. Pride parades in Russia are routinely met by violence, and the government has forbidden a planned Pride House in Sochi to celebrate the LGBT community. One LGBT sports activist recently told me that their plans to host a gay-themed house in Sochi were scrapped when a sympathetic Russian official told them the house would be burned down by a mob the first day it opened.
The state of LGBT rights in Russia is disgraceful, but it's no reason to boycott the Olympic Games. It's good enough reason to petition the president for sanctions on Russia; it's a great reason to protest in front of the United Nations. But Russian LGBT rights have nothing to do with the athletes who have put in years of sacrifice and hard work to reach their "one moment in time."
While Carter stripped athletes of their dreams in 1980, the Soviets remained in Afghanistan for nine more years. Why? Boycotts rarely work. Just ask the Southern Baptists. They started their boycott of the Walt Disney Company in 1997 for giving employee benefits to same-sex couples and promoting the popular "Gay Days" at Disney World. The boycott ended in 2005. This year's Gay Days in Orlando attracted over 150,000 LGBT people. Oops.
Instead of walking away, LGBT athletes and their nations should march into Sochi holding their heads high. It's a lesson we learned in 1936, when the United States faced a similar decision: attend the Berlin Games as the Third Reich was rising to power or stay home due to mounting human rights concerns. The Americans attended those Games and gave rise to Jesse Owens, a black athlete who beat Hitler's "master race" at his own game on his own track.
We can do the same thing in Sochi. Want to make the Olympics a gay spectacle? Follow the Jesse Owens model: Beat the Russians on their own track. Help out LGBT athletes get onto the podium. Donate to the efforts of people like openly gay Kiwi speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who skated in the 2010 Olympic Games and who's aiming for a medal in Sochi. The power of the community isn't to force governments to play politics but to lift up our brightest stars and help them, like Owens, deliver our message for us.
You don't win in sports by walking away; you win by competing.
Beyond politics, some have questioned the safety of out athletes like Skjellerup at these Games. The speed skater who will be taking the ice has no concerns.
"I definitely will feel safe competing in Russia," Skellerup told me, noting that he would resent the New Zealand government if they boycotted these Games on his community's behalf. "The Olympic environment is a very safe one. The whole world will be watching, and I am sure the last thing officials will want is for an incident of any kind, discrimination or a threat to anyone's security to occur."
And if we desperately need a boycott, I suggest looking a little closer to home. Imagine the message it would send if every gay bar and LGBT consumer stopped buying Russian vodka.
While it's easy to point fingers at Russia, moments like these also make me look in the mirror. The United States decriminalized sodomy a decade ago, but we have a lot of work to do at home. Americans in 29 states can be fired for simply being LGBT. An executive order protecting LGBT federal government contractors has been sitting on the president's desk for five years. I cannot marry my partner of 10 years in three dozen states, and even if I could, the federal government wouldn't recognize it.
Should nations like Canada, Norway and France boycott sporting events in the United States because we're behind them? Should we all boycott the Gay Games next year because they're hosted in a state that doesn't allow same-sex marriage?
No. Sports aren't about the politicians or the laws; they're about the athletes pursuing their dreams and competing at the highest level possible. If people want to play politics with Russia, they can bring it up with the politicians in Washington, D.C., and the UN.
Leave the Olympic Games to the athletes.