If you’re the Obama administration, there are a lot of reasons to hate on Russia right now. Vladimir Putin’s regime is actively arming Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, in his war against Western-backed rebels. The country continues to block international measures aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Last month, Putin signed a law that makes the public discussion of gay rights or relationships punishable by arrest or fines. And yesterday, despite the direct appeals of President Obama, the Kremlin granted asylum to the heretofore airport lounge-bound, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.
In response, the White House is considering canceling Obama’s scheduled summit with Putin in Moscow next month. Some voices, including South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and actor and gay-rights activist Harvey Fierstein, are calling for a more dramatic rebuke: a U.S. boycott of next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. “I know athletes would be heartbroken,” Graham told NBC News last month. “I love the Olympics, but I hate what Russia is doing throughout the world.”
For now, the possibility of a U.S. boycott is remote. The U.S. Olympic Committee says “it is not considering a boycott of the Games in Russia.” Lawmakers such as Speaker of the House John Boehner have dismissed the idea. But the White House hasn’t ruled it out. “I’m not going to engage in speculation about that, and the Olympics are a long way off,” spokesman Jay Carney said on July 17, before Putin’s decision to offer safe harbor to Snowden. A Sochi boycott, in other words, is still on the table—and it could become a more serious proposition if U.S.-Russian relations continue to deteriorate.
It would also be a disaster. First, Olympic boycotts have proved to be singularly useless instruments of foreign policy. Twenty-five African nations stayed out of the 1976 Olympics in Montreal to protest the participation of New Zealand, whose rugby team was touring South Africa at the time. The African boycott hurt Canada far more than it did either New Zealand or South Africa’s apartheid regime, which survived another 18 years.
In 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow, demanding that the Soviet Union withdraw from Afghanistan; it was another decade before the last Russian soldier left. The Soviets returned the favor in 1984, keeping the athletes of the Communist bloc out of the Games in Los Angeles. Moscow claimed its boycott was a response to “chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria … being whipped up in the United States.” The American chauvinist-in-chief, Ronald Reagan, rode the burst of national pride from the Olympics to a landslide reelection. Five years later the Iron Curtain crumbled.
History suggests the biggest beneficiary of a U.S. boycott of the Sochi Games would be the host nation itself. At the 1984 Olympics, the U.S. won 174 overall medals, the second-biggest haul in history—after the Soviet Union’s tally of 190 at the 1980 Games, when Team USA stayed home. Russia is no longer an Olympic powerhouse: The Russian team managed to win just three gold medals at the 2010 Olympics, a showing regarded as a national embarrassment. The U.S. won nine golds and 37 overall in 2010, topping the Winter Olympics medal table for the first time since 1932. Should the U.S. boycott the Sochi Games, it’s likely that at least some of the medals the U.S. would have won will end up around the necks of Russian athletes. But for Putin and Co., simply being able to avoid teary-eyed renditions of The Star-Spangled Banner will be sufficient reward.
A U.S. boycott would deprive Russia of ticket and hospitality revenue from American fans who might have planned to travel to Sochi. But that money wouldn’t have come close to offsetting the gargantuan cost of staging the Games, which at $51 billion are already the most expensive in history. A U.S. boycott would, however, be a massive hit to NBC, which paid $775 million for the rights to broadcast the Sochi Games. The network lost more than $200 million on the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, when the U.S. team performed brilliantly; if Obama were to bar American athletes from competing in 2014, ratings would almost surely sink to historic lows. Ultimately, the biggest potential loser of a U.S. boycott of the Sochi Games would not be Vladimir Putin, but Bob Costas.