White House, Boehner, US Olympic Committee fire back against boycott

The U.S. Olympic Committee joined the White House and Speaker John Boehner on Wednesday in arguing the U.S. should attend the Winter Olympics in Russia even if that country gives asylum to Edward Snowden.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) lit off a firestorm Tuesday when he told The Hill the U.S. should consider a boycott if the National Security Agency leaker gets asylum from Russia. 

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The USOC said this would only punish U.S. athletes, while Boehner said Graham was “dead wrong.”

“Why would we want to punish U.S. athletes who’ve been training for three years to compete in the Olympics over a traitor who can’t find a place to call home?” Boehner (R-Ohio) told reporters when asked about the comments.

The Olympic Committee echoed the sentiment, saying it “strongly” opposes a boycott. 

“If there are any lessons to be learned from the American boycott of 1980, it is that Olympic boycotts do not work,” spokesman Patrick Sandusky said in a statement. 

The Carter administration led an international boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the previous year, but the war ground on for another decade.

“Our boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games did not contribute to a successful resolution of the underlying conflict,” Sandusky said. “It did, however, deprive hundreds of American athletes, all whom had completely dedicated themselves to representing our nation at the Olympic Games, of the opportunity of a lifetime.”

White House spokesman Jay Carney initially demurred when pressed on the issue, but agreed when asked if it would be a “bad idea.”

“A lawmaker put it out there,” he said. “We’re not focused on that.”

Graham first made the suggestion in a hallway interview with The Hill on Tuesday afternoon as Snowden officially requested asylum from Russia after spending almost a month in the transit zone of a Moscow airport. Snowden has been charged with espionage for leaking details about two NSA programs that collected information about U.S. telephone calls and international Internet usage.

“I would. I would just send the Russians the most unequivocal signal I could send them,” Graham said when asked about the possibility of a boycott. “It might help, because what they’re doing is outrageous.”

In a follow-up interview with NBC News, he drew a comparison to Adolf Hitler’s 1936 Berlin Games and said the 2014 Olympics could likewise be a “propaganda coup” for Putin.

“I’m not saying that Russia is Nazi Germany,” Graham said, “but I am saying that the Russian government is empowering some of the most evil, hateful people in the world.”

Graham said Wednesday that he wasn’t surprised about the pushback to his comments, but he did not back away from his call to boycott if Russia’s policies toward Snowden and Syria did not change.

“Do I want to boycott the Olympics, absolutely not,” Graham told reporters. But he said that if Russia continues to support Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime with weapons, provide cover to Iran’s nuclear program and grant Snowden asylum, the U.S. should not go.

“Would I accept an invitation of the Russian president — heck no,” Graham said.

The South Carolina Republican also suggested Obama should re-consider attending the Group of 20 conference that’s set to be held in St. Petersburg, Russia, in September.

Russia largely played down the latest controversy plaguing the two countries’ already tense relationship. 

“Sen. Graham’s calls to boycott Olympic games because of the Snowden affair kicks us back to the remote past, to the times of mutual boycotts when our two countries looked at each other through, figuratively speaking, nuclear sight,” said Alexey Pushkov, the head of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee. “I’m sure that these times are in the past.”

The Olympics in Sochi, a city on the coast of Russia’s Black Sea near the border with Georgia, are seen as a showcase for Russia under President Vladimir Putin, who spoke about Snowden and security preparations for the games in a Friday phone call with Obama.

Putin said U.S.-Russia relations are “far more important” than Snowden. The Russian president has asked Snowden to stop leaking information that’s damaging to the U.S., and Snowden agreed.

The games are set to begin Feb. 7.