It’s nice that the United States Olympic Committee has received assurances from the U.S. government that it will, in the USOC’s words, “work with us to ensure that athletes and officials from all countries will have expedited access to the United States in order to participate in international athletic competitions.”
Note that the USOC statement says nothing about guaranteed access and really contains nothing new. The State Department always has worked with the USOC, and it always has had the right to deny access to undesirables of any sort, like the Chilean shooter refused a visa for the 1987 Indianapolis Pan American Games because he was accused of human rights violations, including murder, in his homeland. Some say that justified denial hurt Anchorage's bid for the 1994 Winter Olympics.
But in the big picture, even assuring entry of athletes for international competitions is of little consequence in the face of the Trump administration’s order banning immigration and travel to the United States for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. It also would be overly optimistic to think the government is going to expedite access for athletes from those countries – or even grant it - while doing “extreme vetting” at the same time.
According to a person with knowledge of the situation, those assurances came too late to prevent an Iranian-born taekwondo athlete who is a citizen of Iceland from being denied entry to compete at a major event in Las Vegas, a situation first reported by ESPN. The timing may have been unfortunate, but even that logical explanation will not allay fears of more to come.
Tuesday, the World Olympians Association called for the relevant US authorities to "urgently put in place a formal resolution to ensure the right of athletes to compete and train in the USA is properly protected.”
That is why the rest of the USOC’s Monday statement on the issue was so disappointingly anodyne, even if that was expected. It will do anything, as I suggested in a column posted yesterday, to avoid a Trump tantrum against the Los Angeles bid for the 2024 Olympics, because lack of national government support would sound a death knell for L.A. 2024.
In trying to walk a line between defending Olympic ideals and not irritating the Xenophobe-in-Chief and his advisors, the USOC succeeded only in standing for nothing.
“Like the United States,” the USOC statement said, “the Olympic Movement was founded based upon principles of diversity and inclusion, of opportunity and overcoming adversity. As the steward of the Olympic Movement in the United States, we embrace those values.
“We also acknowledge the difficult task of providing for the safety and security of a nation. It is our sincere hope that the executive order as implemented will appropriately recognize the values on which our nation, as well as the Olympic Movement, were founded."
“Sincere hope?” Nothing more pointed than that?
The USOC leaders need only read Tuesday's column by conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks to see the implications of their hedging with the rationale of needing to work with the government for the benefit of U.S. Olympic athletes. Speaking of Republican members of Congress, whom he artfully called "Republican Fausts," Brooks wrote:
"The deal they've struck with the devil comes at too high a price. It really will cost them their soul."
I understand that the USOC’s mandate covers sports, not politics. Yet consider how strong a stand it took against Russia’s anti-gay legislation just four months before the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
USOC chairman Larry Probst, then a freshly-minted International Olympic Committee member, said he would support amending the Olympic Charter to include “sexual orientation” as one of the areas of discrimination that could not be allowed. The USOC immediately revised the non-discrimination clause in its by-laws to include such language. Patrick Sandusky, then as now the USOC spokesman, said, “We disagree with the (Russian) law and do not believe it is reflective of the Olympic spirit and Olympic Charter.”
Those words and actions pushed the envelope in the ruffle-no-feathers world of Olympic politics. Yes, the USOC officials knew former President Obama had their back on the issues. But the USOC’s taking those positions nevertheless was something its leaders – and U.S. athletes - could be proud of.
And, in case you didn’t notice, that had nothing to do with sports, either.
One of the three current U.S. IOC members, Olympic rower Anita DeFrantz, once was courageous enough to defy the U.S. government by publicly criticizing the White House-mandated U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She joined a suit against the USOC. She received hate mail. Lots of it. She has never backed down from her stance.
DeFrantz has been silent on the new president’s executive order. She has not replied to a message seeking comment.
Anyone can straddle a line. Try to do it very long, and you lose your balance and your moral compass.