SOCHI, Russia -- In the city by the Black Sea, athletes have converged in the spirit of competition. But beyond the skiing and skating, there’s a not so subtle political tug of war.
“The Russian government is doing terrible things throughout the world, and we’re doing nothing in response,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said.
Senator Graham is angry at Russia for offering asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden and he called on the U.S. to boycott the Sochi games.
“Senator Graham is a great man doing a great job, but he’s totally wrong on this issue,” Irwin Belk, a U.S. Olympic Committee member said.
Belk knows a thing or two about boycotting Olympics. In 1980, the U.S. joined 65 nations that boycotted the games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Belk was on the committee at the time.
“It was a huge mistake,” he says of the decision.
He adds President Carter gave the committee and ultimatum.
“He didn’t show up, but he sent [Walter] Mondale down and said, ‘We’ll take tax exemption away [for the U.S. Olympic Committee].’ Well if you took the tax exemption away, it would really just close U.S. Olympics down,” Belk said. “So we did the right thing to back Carter. We didn’t have a choice.”
The idea of a boycott doesn’t sit well with the athletes who have trained for years, Rock Hill speed skater Lauren Cholewinski.
“For a political reason, or for people who have never even seen one day of what we have to go through – to dictate whether we can compete should be left out of it,” she said. “A sport should be left a sport.”
Gold medalist Dan Jansen, who is in Sochi as a commentator, also told NBC Charlotte it’s the biggest mistake a country can make. He feels a boycott defeats the purpose of the games.
“Olympics are the one bright spot in the world, where countries get together and they don’t worry about that stuff.”
With or without everyone’s blessing, the games will go on in Sochi, and so will the political divide.