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Commentary & Opinion

Keith Strudler: Sports, Politics And Mother Russia

Lest you haven’t noticed, and it’s quite possible you haven’t, we’re in the second week of the fortnight of the World Track and Field Championships held in Moscow. It would have been easy to miss, even for sports fans, since it’s gotten less television coverage than a Lindsay Lohan parole hearing. And Americans have grown quite accustomed to acknowledging the Olympics and the Olympics only when it comes to track and field, even if the World Championships hold equal weight in the athletic community, if not all that exist outside of it.

There have been notable performances from these championships, starting with Usain Bolt winning another 100 meter title. Aston Eaton won another decathlon, and his wife Brianne won the heptathlon for a solid family double. Perhaps it’s the specter of drugs, which has grounded some notable athletes from competing, or maybe that it’s halfway around the world, but America just doesn’t seem all that interested.

But perhaps we should be, not in spite of, but actually because of the location. Russia is beginning the first leg of a holy trinity of international sporting competition, hosting the Olympic Games in 2014 and the World Cup in 2018. Like Brazil, Russia is fulfilling its prophecy as an emergent BRIC nation, at least when it comes to sports. So American fans could watch these games as a preview of what we might see in 2014.

Or, maybe not. Because as we speak, the US is at least contemplating, and that may be a strong word, boycotting the 2014 Games because of Russia’s new law banning gay propaganda, which is just as oppressive as it sounds. The US started this discussion when Russia opened the red carpet for wanted spy Edward Snowden, although that storyline seems to have run its course. As of now, Obama hasn’t supported any kind of boycott. He’s probably well aware that would only encourage more negative comparisons to fellow democratic US President Jimmy Carter, who rode the US 1980 Olympic boycott all the way to a failed reelection bid to some actor in California. While Obama doesn’t have an election to worry about, he does have a legacy on his mind.

The arguments for a boycott are fairly simple. First, hurt Russia for enacting policies that violate basic human rights. And second, protect our own moral standing by avoidance. It’s the same reason you shouldn’t buy a stolen car – you automatically become part of the problem.

In all likelihood, this will all be sound and fury signifying nothing. Hardly anyone of influence has supported the ban, which probably says more about the importance of sport than it does about American views on homosexuality. Although rest assured, if we were talking about race or religion instead of sexual orientation, enough senators would be screaming and yelling for a boycott, they’d have to start a whole new CSPAN channel.

But outside of whether we will boycott, which we won’t, the question is, should we? The answer is both simple and complex. Because in a perfect world, or at least perfect on our end, we should. Sending international ambassadors to a country that persecutes part of its populace wasn’t acceptable in Germany or South Africa, and it’s not acceptable now. And we can talk about how this only hurts the athletes, and it’s not fair, but the simple answer is that life’s not fair. And sometimes, the pursuit of human dignity comes before athletic pursuit.

The problem is, we’re not so perfect. Part of why we won’t boycott the games is because it might make us ask increasingly uncomfortable questions about our own policies. Another reason is because it might make us recognize the crass commercial exploits of the Games, which are far more enterprise than exercise. It would be nice if boycotting the games simply were a political gesture. Unfortunately, it’s an economic one as well, where networks and corporations are the real losers, even more than the swimmers and kayakers and fencers and so on. And no American politician will support that. So we’ll send our athletes and make some ineffective statement about gay rights, pulling the shades closed on our own shortcomings. It’s self-serving and hypocritical and all the rest that’s marquis of modern international sport.

If you want to see exactly what that looks like, you should check out the track and field championships going on right now. In America, at least, you may be the only one watching.

Keith Strudler is director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and Associate Professor of Communication.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not reflect the views of this station or its management.