Germany’s President May Be Boycotting the Sochi Olympics

German President Joachim Gauck may be boycotting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, in order to protest Russia’s human rights abuses:

German President Joachim Gauck will not represent his country at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, his office says.

The announcement makes Gauck, a former pastor, the first major political figure to boycott the games, which will be held at the Black Sea resort in February.

According to a report in the German publication Der Spiegel, Gauck made the decision in protest against human rights violations and the harassment of Russian opposition political figures. The magazine said the Russian government was informed of his decision last week.

But Gauck’s office is downplaying the report. “He simply decided not to go,” his spokesman Tobias Scheufele told CNN. “We’re not saying anything about his motivations.”

Others have called for a boycott to protest Russia’s recent crackdown on gays and lesbians, which is just the tip of the iceberg of the Russian government’s repressive ways under the rule of Ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin.

Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin argues for a limited boycott by world leaders:

The athletes are going to the games, for better or worse. (On one hand the almighty dollar and the bizarre primacy of sports make one queasy, on the other, one can sympathize with the young people who’ve devoted their lives for the perfect performance at just the right time.) But the politicians are an unnecessary and therefore dispensable part of the proceedings….

It would be a small but telling gesture if the Obama administration and all members of Congress would steer clear of Sochi. The athletes in full view of hundreds of millions around the world can compete — and then snag their endorsements. Refusal to grace Sochi with the presence of the world’s political leaders would be a narrowly targeted shot at the Russian strong men, a reminder that there is some cost to their brutality. So how about it: Who will stay home and say no to Putin?

For reasons I outlined in this post, I think there is merit to the idea of an Olympic boycott against, thereby denying a repressive government what would otherwise be a potentially valuable propaganda victory. Rubin’s more limited boycott proposal has the virtue of minimizing harm to athletes and other innocent third parties. But it also greatly diminishes the punishment suffered by the host regime. The latter can probably score a propaganda victory even if Western politicians stay home. This consideration might argue in favor of a complete boycott, with athletes staying home along with the politicians. But, as I also explained, we should be consistent about the the principle involved if we do boycott:

[I]n deciding whether a boycott is defensible, it’s worth keeping in mind that, bad as it is, Russia’s human rights record is no worse than that of numerous other authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian governments. Unlike its communist predecessor, today’s Russian government allows some degree of freedom for opposition movements, and does not engage in mass murder. As recently as 2008, the summer Olympics were held in China, a nation ruled by a regime with an even worse human rights record than Russia’s….

To conclude that Russia is an unfit host for the Olympics because of its human rights record is essentially to say that only liberal democracies should be allowed to host such events. Maybe that should indeed be the standard. I tentatively lean in that direction myself. But we should be clear about the principles involved and try to apply them consistently.