PARK CITY, Utah -- For a fleeting second-and-a-half a few months ago this one gay human -- myself -- did go rah-rah over the idea of an American boycott of the Olympics in Sochi. Thank goodness for that "fleeting" part.
It's encouraging that this uncommonly crummy idea seems to have croaked as Sochi 2014 starts to materialize, as we gather for this Olympic Media Summit, convening athletes and reporters confounded by slopestyle snowboarding. The notion of boycotting Sochi because of Russia's crackpot anti-gay law has died on grounds both logical and emotional. We have learned from history, and who knew we could?
For the logical, there was the United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, a decision of almost unattainable failure. Soviet forces invaded Afghanistan in December 1979. U.S. president Jimmy Carter gave the ultimatum in January 1980. Soviet forces completed their withdrawal in 1989, rebuffed with heavy losses, though still a fraction of those of Afghanistan. As a trivial reward for the feckless boycott, the United States got the Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, and if you don't think that diminished those Olympics, you're in denial.
Would a boycott help the Russian gay people for whom we worry? The evidence deluges no.
For the emotional, I wound up at the table of the American freestyle skier Dylan Ferguson. Back in 2010, at age 21, he came right up to the brink of completing four years of training for the Olympics and a trip to Vancouver, when nobody should ever forgo any trip to Vancouver. On Feb. 2, 10 days before the Opening Ceremony, he was training in Park City when he started to feel something strange.
"This pain in my belly that I'd never had, it was like I had a really bad stomachache, but it would sort of come and go, sort of like a creeping feeling," he said. "So I would feel OK for a couple of minutes, and then I'd feel really bad for a couple of minutes. I knew something was wrong in my body, that wasn't just a strep throat or a stomach flu, so yeah, my roommates took me to the hospital, and something was bad."
Along that route, in the lousy unknown, he did have the thought, "Terrible timing" -- but he did not have the thought, "I'm missing Vancouver."
His appendix, near rupture, cried out for removal, and out it went.
"I was feeling terrible that whole week," he said of the days after the operation. "I had some tests done on me, trying to figure out what was going on, and they basically found where my appendix was, a pocket of infection there, so they had to go back in and drain that." That sounds like a barrel of fun, and then … "And then, about four days later, I had another pocket of abscess, of infection, and they went back in the third time and drained that."
The men's freestyle aerials didn't begin until Feb. 22, so hope had lingered, but that third surgery quashed the hope. He called his best friend and fellow freestyle skier Scotty Bahrke, who had not qualified. "So you know, definitely that call to Scotty was very emotional, and having to tell my friend, you know, I can't compete, but you can compete for me, which was really cool. So definitely, it was really low to have the doctors say, 'You're not going to be able to compete, obviously,' but then low to high, I get to give my dream to my best friend."
Not only that, but "I was feeling the worst I've ever felt, things inside me were terrible, I was on a lot of medication, so I was just happy to be OK after everything."
His mother, Patricia, told the Salt Lake Tribune that month, "This now goes down in family history as the most expensive vacation we couldn't take." Watching a healthy 21-year-old son endure three surgeries had been "very overwhelming and very emotional for the entire family."
Hearing this gory ordeal, knowing its atrocious timing and that his wait has stretched to eight toilsome years, knowing this young athlete will have to continue retelling tired details of his departed appendix (at least to reporters), all I can hope is that Ferguson turns up in Sochi, and that as many fellow Fergusons turn up to witness. I doubt I'd have it in me to tell him I think he shouldn't go. Of course, I could always say that his personal goals should bow to human rights.
So that's where we get back to the logical, to our knowledge that Olympic boycotts backfire, to the idea that the best tack might lie in mass mingling. It might be in the vein of Elton John, still doing his concert in December in Russia. (The world's most famous gay man, to Terry Gross of NPR: "You chip away at something, and you hope there will be dialogue, and the situation will get better.") It might be in the mode of athletes such as the American figure skater Ashley Wagner and the skier Bode Miller, showing their cojones as they did here. (Miller: "My main emotion when I hear and deal with situations like this is embarrassment. As a human being, I think it's embarrassing.")
It might be. We don't know the future. We do know the past.