Steve Chapman

It's like 1980 all over again. There's a war in Afghanistan, the economy is lousy, Paul McCartney has a new record coming out, and some people are calling for the United States to stay away from the upcoming Olympics in Russia.

When the first talk of another Olympic boycott arose, no one took it very seriously. It came from Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who enjoys far more face time on Sunday morning talk shows than influence over U.S. policy, and who is upset about Edward Snowden. But the idea could be gaining traction.

Some gay rights advocates, from both the United States and Russia, have urged the U.S. and other countries to stay away from Sochi this winter to protest an anti-gay law signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. The law makes it a crime to engage in "propaganda" in favor of "nontraditional" sexuality among minors, which is an ominously wide net.

Human Rights Watch has said the law "is clearly incompatible with the Olympic Charter's promotion of 'human dignity,' as well as a blatant violation of Russia's international legal obligations to guarantee non-discrimination and respect for freedom of expression." Comparisons have even been heard to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, presided over by Adolf Hitler. On Friday, though, President Barack Obama said he does not favor a boycott.

It's true that the Olympic Games can be exploited for the benefit of a repressive, authoritarian government. But everyone knew all along that Putin's government views personal liberty with suspicion and malice.

It's not clear, though, that Russia is less free than China -- which was allowed to host the 2008 Summer Games. In both cases, the International Olympic Committee decided not to use human rights as the main criterion for choosing a site.

Maybe it should. But that would mean restricting the games to liberal democracies -- which could lead other governments to withdraw on grounds of second-class treatment. This approach, like a boycott, would undermine one of the central purposes of the Olympics: fostering international understanding and friendship. It would separate the world into good guys and bad guys, instead of building bridges between the two.

Back in ancient Greece, the games took place under a truce. "Wars were suspended, armies were prohibited from entering Elis (the site of the first Olympics) or threatening the Games, and legal disputes and the carrying out of death penalties were forbidden," notes the Perseus Digital Library Project at Tufts University. That allowed enemies to meet without hatred or bloodshed. To stay away from the event because it is being held in a place inhospitable to our values is to miss the point.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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