WASHINGTON — Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., touched a nerve in athletes and Olympic officials alike Wednesday by floating the possibility of boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
“I love the Olympics, but I hate what the Russian government is doing throughout the world,” Graham told NBC News.
Kevin Bishop, Graham’s communications director, said the senator wasn’t just referring to the asylum application of NSA leaker Edward Snowden but also to Russia’s support of the Iranian nuclear program and the Syrian regime. Bishop emphasized that Graham wasn’t specifically calling for a boycott but wanted to raise the idea.
Bishop didn’t respond to a request for an interview with Graham.
The mere suggestion of a boycott was enough for the U.S. Olympic Committee to release a statement that said members “strongly oppose” a boycott, drawing comparisons to the 1980 Olympics boycott, in which the United States and 64 other nations refused to send athletes to Moscow at the height of Cold War tensions.
“Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict,” said Patrick Sandusky, U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman. “It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all of whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”
The committee makes the final decision on whether to send athletes to the Olympics.
One of those athletes denied participation was Ron Neugent, a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic swimming team who now is an orthodontist in Wichita.
Neugent had taken a year off from the University of Kansas to focus on his training, but he lost out on his chance when President Jimmy Carter declared that the United States wouldn’t send a team to Moscow in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
“I’m an American. I understand that our country has to do some things for leverage around the world,” Neugent said Wednesday, “but I am also a human being, and as an athlete, you have a very short window to try and take part in the Olympic Games.”
Despite training once again to qualify for the Olympic team in 1984 for the games in Los Angeles that were boycotted by members of the Soviet bloc, Neugent couldn’t qualify, and he lost his chance to compete for his country.
Politicians in Washington haven’t shown strong support for Graham’s suggestion. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, as well as Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed their disagreement to reporters Wednesday.
During the daily White House news briefing, press secretary Jay Carney repeatedly declined to comment on the possibility of a boycott.
Sochi was a topic on Friday during a telephone conversation between President Obama and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, but a news release mentioned only counterterrorism cooperation around the games.