I want to take you back to the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, during the height of the Cold War. The U.S. hockey team, made up of amateur athletes, was pitted against one of the most dominant hockey teams in history from the Soviet Union. Tensions were high and expectations of the U.S. team were low. Yet the U.S. would rise to beat the Soviet Union in the semi-final game. Dubbed the “Miracle on Ice,” it was perhaps one of the greatest upsets in sports history and it inspired a nation.
Although the upcoming 2014 Sochi Olympic games will take place under different circumstances, the same potential exists — for the athletes involved to inspire the world. For this reason, calls for the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Olympics in Sochi over Russia’s new anti-gay legislation are wrong. Even in the face of political and social disagreement, America cannot back down from this competition.
I have always loved sports. At the age of six, swimming became one of my passions and eventually developed into one of the most important facets of my life. Over the course of my swimming career, I have had the privilege of training with some of the most talented and hardworking people I have ever known. From my high school team to the Tufts University team which I’m on now, I have been motivated by my teammates’ actions and strong character. They know right from wrong, and they know what it takes to be successful. More than anything, they know how to handle adversity.
As an athlete, you learn from a young age how to deal with and overcome unbeatable situations. Whether it is an injury, a personal matter, physical, or mental exhaustion, you are encouraged to press on — to overcome. When athletes face slumps or obstacles during a competition, they do not back down from the issue, they proceed, and that is the only way they are ever able to change the circumstances.
Moreover, Olympic boycotts have never been successful. When President Jimmy Carter had the U.S. boycott the 1980 summer games in Moscow to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, the effect was inconsequential. In fact, the Soviets entrenched themselves deeper into war with the Afghans and then boycotted the summer games in Los Angeles four years later.
Undoubtedly, Russian’s new anti-gay law is discriminatory and wrong. President Obama has officially condemned the law saying, “I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them… when … you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country.”
As expressed by Outsports' Cyd Zeigler, the International Olympic committee must assure that athletes who have spoken out again the Russian law will be protected from incarceration during the games. During the 2008 games in Beijing, the IOC president spoke on a similar matter with regard to the issue of China and Tibet. President Jacques Rogge said that athletes would be able to speak out about Tibet because “for [the IOC], freedom of expression is something that is absolute. It’s a human right.”
READ MORE: Liz Plank, "Don't Boycott the Games"
In order for the 2014 games to be a success, the international community must be steadfast in maintaining the integrity of the games. As stated in the Olympic charter, “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” Understanding. Friendship. And fair play. This is what the Olympics have always been about.
In swimming, races are determined by tenths of a second. Every breath, every stroke, every movement makes the most subtle difference between winning and losing. No matter how painful it is, you have to put your head down and get to the wall. In those final seconds, the work you have done leading up to the race is over, and it’s now to up to you to implement it, to really make it count.
This is just as true in months leading up to the Sochi games. The U.S. has had a tremendous summer for gay rights. We have put in the work and overcome a great deal in the struggle for equality. But what does it say about us if we back down from this challenge? As a country, we need to make that push to the wall, to make years of hard work count. We must rise above the inequitable laws of another country and stand firm in our beliefs by making our presence visible and tangible.
The Olympics are a celebration of the great achievements of those who dedicate themselves to embodying the best physical form of the human body and the greatest endurance of the human spirit. All athletes who participate at the 2014 Sochi games, gay and straight, have the capacity and the ability show the world — to prove to the world —that athletic completion can inspire change and hope in the heart of millions.