I believe President Barack Obama should have attended the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Winter Olympics, or at the least sent Joe Biden and Michelle. Why? For the same reason I disagree with any Olympic boycott: The Olympics are for the athletes and not the politicians or for making a political statement although I don't deny that the Olympics can serve as a venue for politicians to meet on vital issues. Most athletes have made enormous sacrifices in training years and years, often traveling to foreign countries on tight budgets to compete with other athletes. Their dedication and ambition to be the very best in the world has to be admired and respected. It transcends politics. They are, in effect, young ambassadors without a political portfolio.
Just because politicians might disagree with the host country's actions or policies on a war or social issue, does not give them the right to hold their athletes as hostages for their own political demands. Did Jimmy Carter's United States led boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics held in Moscow for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan cause the Soviets to rethink their Afghanistan policies? Hardly. The Soviets didn't exit Afghanistan until nine years later and they didn't leave victorious. The only victims were the athletes who were deprived of their once in a life time opportunity to fulfill their ambition. The politicians had no skin in the game...only the athletes.
Furthermore that boycott led to a tit for tat action by the Soviet bloc four years later in their boycotting of the 1984 summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, an action that didn't alter anyone's political views...only hardened them. And again the athletes were the victims...those that won medals knew that they didn't necessarily compete against the best in the world. And those that didn't get to attend were also deprived of competing for the reward that they had trained so hard for.
President Obama's decision to not attend ( boycott?) the Sochi Olympics is hardly of the scale of the 1980 and 1984 country boycotts, but nevertheless one cannot ignore the political overtones of the LGBT protest movement when Obama sent Billie Jean King, Janet Napolitano, and figure skater Brian Boitano to represent the United States at the opening ceremonies. No Michelle Obama or Joe Biden, both of whom attended the games in London.
Meanwhile, many of the heads of state for the Asian countries did attend including China and Japan, and Vladimir Putin certainly made the most of their attendance, not only meeting with them but publicly praising them. Putin also made a point of visiting athletes in the Olympic village including a half hour visit to USA House. As reported by USA Today
"USOC CEO Scott Blackmun said politics never came up during Putin's half-hour visit. But the fact he asked to come showed he holds no grudge against the U.S. team."
"We're sport people. We're not political people," Blackmun told USA TODAY Sports. "When a head of state called and asked if he could visit, we were delighted. We certainly didn't get into any of the things that are deeper issues. All we talked about was sport," Blackmun said, "and that's appropriate given that that's all we do."
I agree with Blackmun, and I commend Putin for putting politics aside and taking the time to visit our athletes. The visit to the USA House was cordial, and they even toasted each other with a glass of wine. The USOC gave him a gift...a silver Nike jacket that U.S. athletes wear on the medals podium plus the Team USA Valentine's Day pin, red with six tiny hearts and "Happy Valentine's Day Team USA". Putin will remember that.
This was a win for the US athletes, a diplomatic win for Putin and a lost opportunity for Obama.
If President Obama had attended the Sochi Olympics, he could have justified it using the same language as USOC President Blackmun...a time for sports and not politics. He would honor them as the world's ambassadors that build bridges, much the same as our ping pong athletes
paved the roads and built a bridge for Nixon to cross into the People's Republic of China in 1972, the first visit by a US president to China, ending 25 years of separation between our two countries.
When I see the international snow boarders with their baggie pants giving each other a hug at the end of a run, I see a hug of friendship and respect that is void of political overtones. Those images are broadcasted around the world for all to see and create public perceptions. It does more for diplomacy and goodwill than the negotiations behind closed doors of our official diplomats.
The United States and Russia have many vital shared interests including our cooperation in the International Space Station, the non proliferation of nuclear weapons, counter-terrorism, environmental initiatives to minimize green house gas emissions that affect Climate Change, and containing the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. Attendance at the Olympics might have opened the door for Obama to perhaps meet with Putin on some of these issues, and if not in Sochi, then at some later date. To be clear, Putin is a proud Russian, and for Obama to show him respect by attending, it would have done more for future diplomacy and progress on these issues as well as the rights of the LGBT community worldwide than by staying at home. Obama needed to look Putin in the eye again.
But most of all Obama needed to salute the world's athletes, the true ambassadors of diplomacy.