SIDELINES: A U.S. boycott of the Winter Olympics would be devastating for athletes

Federal Way native J.R. Celski is shooting for his second Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year.  - Courtesy photo
Federal Way native J.R. Celski is shooting for his second Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

There is a growing movement from plenty of powerful people that the United States should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia — which is too bad.

It’s a shame when political power plays find their way into the Olympic Games. Athletic competitions, especially the sacred Olympics, are supposed to be a sanctuary and free of ideology.

There are plenty of reasons for the U.S. Olympic Team to stay away from Russia — with the biggest being a new law signed by Russia President Vladimir Putin that makes the public discussion of gay rights or relationships punishable by arrest or fines.

Other reasons include Putin’s regime actively arming Syria’s dictator, Basher al-Assad, in his war against Western-backed rebels, continued blocking of international measures aimed at stopping Iran’s nuclear program, and granting asylum to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

As of right now, a boycott doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards. The U.S. Olympic Committee reports that it “is not considering a boycott of the Games in Russia.”

But President Obama and the White House haven’t ruled it out.

“I’m not going to engage in speculation about that, and the Olympics are a long way off,” White House Spokesman Jay Carney said last month.

A boycott would be devastating for athletes like Federal Way native J.R. Celski. The short track speedskater has literally been training for years in hopes of peaking for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Celski’s career started as a 4-year-old inline skater at Federal Way’s Pattison’s West with his father, Bob, and two brothers, Chris and David. After numerous inline national championships, Celski switched over to the ice as a 12-year-old to follow in the skates of his idol, Apolo Ohno, who was also a former Pattison’s skater and Olympic gold medalist.

Most recently, Celski won the 2012 overall title at the U.S. Senior Short Track Speedskating National Championships in December, and set the world record in the 500 meters.

Celski brought home a pair of bronze medals from the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, but he did so as a 20-year-old. He was also coming off a gruesome injury just months before the Olympics. He had gashed his left thigh with his skate and required dozens of stitches.

The Sochi Olympics are slated to be Celski’s coming-out party on the worldwide stage. He will be among the favorites to stand atop the medal stand in the three individual events (500, 1,000 and 1,500 meters), along with the relays.

“He is a kid from (Federal Way) who just wants to compete and represent his country,” said his father, Federal Way City Councilman Bob Celski, in an email to The Mirror. “He is two weeks out from the critical World Cup (not Olympic yet) trials, and given the pressure he is already under, certainly doesn’t need to be distracted by the latest politically-generated reason for an Olympic boycott by the U.S.”

The movement in the Pacific Northwest to boycott the Sochi Games got a lot of muscle behind it earlier this week when Rep. Adam Smith (D-District 9) added his name as a supporter.

“It’s an ugly, ugly situation in Russia right now and we should put as much pressure on them as possible to change some of those policies,” said Congressman Smith, a Democrat, in a broadcast interview on KIRO Radio.

Smith represents the 9th Congressional District, which includes Federal Way. District 9 stretches from Tacoma in the south to Mercer Island and Bellevue in the north.

Smith said that the competing countries and athletes needed to be reassured that gay athletes would not be discriminated against or harassed during the Olympic games.

“If we have a situation where gay athletes from any country show up to Russia to compete in a competition and face arrest, that’s completely unacceptable,” said Smith.

Under the sweeping new anti-gay law in Russia, “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” is forbidden, including holding hands, carrying symbols like a rainbow flag and speaking about homosexuality around minors. Citizens of countries that do permit gay marriage also will be forbidden from adopting Russian children.

Media coverage from the country has reported arrests during gay pride rallies along with violent treatment of activists.

Russia’s sports minister said last week that the country will enforce the new law during the Olympic Games in Sochi.

“An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi,” Vitaly Mutko said in an interview with R-Sport, the sports newswire of state news agency RIA Novosti. “But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”

The law specifies punishment for foreign citizens to include fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000), time in prison for up to 15 days, deportation and denial of re-entry into Russia.

The last time the United States boycotted an Olympic Games was in the summer of 1980, when President Jimmy Carter kept the Americans out of the Moscow Olympics. The Soviet Union returned the favor during the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

We will see what happens from now until the 2014 Winter Olympics kickoff in February. It’s going to be interesting to see what unfolds. Let’s just hope Celski, who started skating at Pattison’s West, has a chance to “go for the gold” in Russia.

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