August 21, 2013

Olympic athletes may face political hurdles

Two U.S. sprinters created civil rights headlines in 1968 -- will there be similar collisions in Sochi in 2014?

By LIZ CLARKE The Washington Post

(Continued from page 1)

Gold medallists team Russia celebrate at the women's 4x400 metres relay victory ceremony during the IAAF World Athletics Championships at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow
click image to enlarge

Perhaps as a gesture of gay-rights solidarity, two members of Russia's gold medal relay team kissed at the medal ceremony for the World Athletic Championships in Moscow on Aug. 17.



It's hardly the first time politics has collided with the Olympics.

At the 1968 Mexico City Games, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised clenched fists on the medal podium in silent protest of racial inequity. They were sent home as punishment.

The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan prompted a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, followed by a reciprocal Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.

The decision to award Beijing the 2008 Summer Games came amid heated debate over whether China's dismal human-rights record would be endorsed or compelled to improve as a result.

For athletes competing against such politically charged backdrops, deciding whether or when to speak out -- particularly at the precise moment they have devoted years of training toward -- can be difficult.

Six years after competing in Beijing, his third and final Olympics, kayaker Scott Parsons of Bethesda, Md., says he still feels remorse for averting his eyes when he saw ancient homes being razed and entire blocks covered in tarpaulins as Chinese residents were displaced to make way for the Games.

"I felt bad because I honestly, in a sense, turned my back on myself and what I was feeling about that stuff in order to prepare for the race," recalled Parsons, 34.

He finished 16th, out of the medals. "I was a little down after that race -- not only because I kind of choked in the race but because of swallowing some of my morality."

As Parsons sees it, almost everything about the Olympics is political -- particularly the selection of host cities. Given that, he thinks it's both unfair and hypocritical to expect athletes to remain apolitical.

"I think the athletes have a platform they should use as long as it's respectful and nonviolent," Parsons said.

Swimmer Glenn Mills never got the chance to compete or speak on an Olympic stage, his opportunity scuttled by the 1980 boycott. Trained to refocus the moment anything went wrong in a meet, Mills immediately threw himself into preparing for the 1984 Games only to miss the cut by five-tenths of a second.

Still, he believes that the 1980 U.S. Olympic team succeeded despite missing the Games. "It took 17 years of focus and work to accomplish that goal" of making the team, he said. "The reason we did it wasn't for fame or glory but to prove that we had the potential to be the best at something."


Mills found the platform for making his political statement four years later, joining nine other American swimmers, many from the 1980 Olympic team, in defying a ban on competing in South Africa because of the nation's policy of apartheid.

They chose to go, Mills said, not to endorse apartheid but to support the South African swimmers who were barred from competing outside their country because of their government's racial policy.

After staging four meets around the country and a swimming clinic in a Zulu township, the Americans returned home to find USA Swimming had banned them for two years, effectively ending their careers.

"It was a great farewell," said Mills, who continues in the sport as a coach. "When we came back, there was no remorse."

While the IOC hopes to get more clarity about athletes' rights to speak out, stand up or simply wave a flag in support of gay rights in Sochi, Wallechinsky doubts Russian officials will bow to pressure to rescind the law or even suspend it for the duration of the Games.

The controversy comes amid a time of transition in the IOC, with six candidates vying to succeed President Jacques Rogge, whose 12-year reign ends in September.

Moreover, Russian officials likely took note, he said, of the IOC's failure to hold China to the many pledges it made about openness, tolerance and the broader extension of human rights during the 2008 Games.

"I'm sure Mr. Putin learned his lesson from that," Wallechinsky said.

Former U.S. congressman Tom McMillen, a Rhodes scholar and 1972 Olympian, said he felt strongly that athletes in Sochi have a forum for dissenting with the Russian law.

"The opportunity to express themselves as athletes should not be discouraged or grounds for disqualification," McMillen said.

"I think there should be an avenue for self-expression."


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