In 1936, Jesse Owens and the United States faced a decision. Adolf Hitler was rounding up gay people, Jews and anyone else he deemed inferior to his “master race,” including African Americans such as Owens. The United States contemplated boycotting that year’s Olympics in Berlin, which Hitler and his Third Reich planned to use as a platform to advance their doctrine of Aryan superiority. But ultimately the United States and Owens decided, Germans-be-damned, they’d go to the Games and dominate at the medal podium, dispelling any notion of a “master race” by example.
The Americans arrived at the Games in defiance of the führer. During the parade of nations, American athletes placed their hats over their hearts, instead of extending their arms to salute Hitler as other nations did. Most provacatively, the United States was the only country to not dip its flag in deference to the chancellor. Owens followed the Americans’ symbolic protests with one of the greatest performances in Olympic history. He crushed his German opponents on their home turf in front of Hitler, winning four gold medals and claiming three world records along the way. Owens hit back at prejudice the only way athletes know how: He beat it in competition.
Today the U.S. faces a similar choice as to whether it should compete in the upcoming Games. Russia, which hosts the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, has become a hotbed of antigay laws and violence. Police in Russia can arrest anyone—including tourists—they suspect of being homosexual; fascist groups have lured LGBT Russians to meet-ups for the purposes of torturing and publicly humilating them; even waving a rainbow flag could land you in jail for supporting what Russian lawmakers refer to as “gay propaganda.”
In response, many (including actor Harvey Fierstein in a recent New York Times op-ed) have called for the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Games. But not showing up would be a travesty. It would deny American athletes the chance to win in defiance of Russia; it would deny gay athletes their Jesse Owens moment.
Some say a boycott in 1936 would have denied Hitler legitimacy. Bullshit. To think skipping the 1936 Games would have slowed the genocide that had already been initiated, or would have staved off World War II, is to believe the Cleveland Browns stand a chance of winning the Super Bowl.
Boycotting the Olympics never works. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter inflicted on the U.S. the greatest black eye in its international sports history by boycotting the Moscow Summer Olympics in response to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. Athletes such as Greg Louganis were suddenly told all their hard work of the past four years was for naught; they’d be watching from their couches as the Soviets won gold. Some, including Louganis, would get their opportunity four years later (with an asterisk, since the Soviets and many other countries returned the favor with a boycott of their own). Other Americans missed out on their only Olympic opportunity. Bill Rodgers, the world’s number one marathoner in 1980 and four-time winner of both the Boston and New York marathons, was denied his chance at Olympic glory because the United States stayed home. Did the boycott do anything to change the Soviet Union’s incursion in Afghanistan? No, it was there for another nine years.
What if Moscow hadn’t competed in the 1980 Winter Games? Five months before the U.S. boycott, the Americans beat the Soviets in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey tournament. The “Miracle on Ice” became a seminal moment in American sports history. In fact, I’ve never seen a list of great American sports moments that doesn’t have that hockey game at the top.
The greatness of the game wasn’t just about the outcome. The Americans mounted a stirring comeback against the world’s greatest hockey team, scoring two goals late in the third period to win 4–3. The result was nearly unfathomable. “When I look back,” legendary broadcaster Al Michaels said before the 2010 Winter Games, “obviously Lake Placid would be the highlight of my career. I can’t think of anything that would ever top it.”
Beyond the competition, the Olympics offers the rare opportunity for cross-cultural camaraderie. Owens’s feat was historic, but it is a little-told story within those Games that shows the true power of the Olympics. In the long jump’s qualifying round, Owens came up short on his first jump and fouled on his second. One more foul jump and he wouldn’t qualify to compete for the gold. The advice Owens needed came from an unexpected source: German jumper Luz Long.
Long suggested to Owens that he should adjust his approach and take off from a few inches behind the board. Heeding the advice, Owens qualified on his next jump with room to spare, then went on to beat Long in the final, leaving the German in second place. The first person to congratulate Owens for his gold was Long. “It took a lot of courage for him to befriend me in front of Hitler,” Owens later said. “You can melt down all the medals and cups I have and they wouldn't be a plating on the 24-karat friendship I felt for Luz Long at that moment. Hitler must have gone crazy watching us embrace.”
In 1943 Long was killed in battle in World War II, but Owens kept up a correspondence with Long’s family. Two decades later the German became the first person awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal, given by the International Olympic Committee to those who exemplify sportsmanship at the Games.
That is the Olympic spirit at work. We might fret about politics, but the Games break down barriers and pit athlete against athlete, promoting sportsmanship and camaraderie. That is why U.S. athletes need to be at the 2014 Sochi Games, especially considering how much the proliferation of people living openly and out of the closet has advanced LGBT rights.
When Brendan Burke—son of Brian Burke, the widely respected hockey executive who won the Stanley Cup in 2007 as Anaheim’s general manager—came out, he helped make the NHL and the hockey world a more tolerant place. Though Brendan died in a car accident in 2010, he remains an inspiration. Imagine if the American hockey players beat the Russians on their own ice in Sochi and then take rainbow flags and images of Brendan Burke to the winners’ podium? That’s a powerful moment that can’t happen if we boycott.
Imagine the other memories these Winter Games could generate, with openly gay athletes from the U.S. and abroad leading the charge. Could figure skater Johnny Weir make the Olympic team and climb the podium? Could speed skater Blake Skjellerup shock the world and earn a speed-skating gold medal? And could Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst continue her dominance on the oval, taking home gold for the third straight Games?
Anything is possible in sports. Anything is possible in the Olympics.
But nothing is possible if we don’t compete.
Have a question for Cyd? We're hosting a live chat with him this Thursday, August 15 at 1 PM EST/10 AM PST. Tweet to @Playboy your question using the hashtag #BoycottChat to join the conversation.