Sochi, were watching you

The Winter Olympics have just gotten underway in Sochi, Russia, and it’s time to cheer on Team USA (and Team Israel, too, while we’re at it).

The run-up to any Olympics usually features debate about the host nation and its role in the world. Sometimes the verdict is harsh. The 2008 Summer Games in Beijing incited global protest over China’s appalling human rights record.

Sochi sparked a different debate, primarily over Russia’s no-less-ugly crackdown on gays and lesbians, including new restrictive laws and an uptick in anti-gay violence.

Throw in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s iron-fisted rule and all manner of Russian mischief in the sphere of geopolitics, and the result was a call from some quarters for a boycott of the Sochi Games.

Such a boycott would have been misguided. The Olympics are, first and foremost, a global safe zone where the best athletes in the world can compete without regard to politics. Had the United States spurned Sochi, the dreams of hundreds of athletes, most of whom trained for years to reach this moment, would have been dashed.

We, too, strongly condemn Russia’s thuggish policies. But by sending a team to Sochi that includes athletes who proudly identify as gay and lesbian, the United States makes a strong statement about the value we place on diversity and inclusion.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter pulled the United States out of the Summer Olympics in Moscow, ostensibly in protest over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

We don’t wish to revisit the wisdom of that decision, but it is interesting that, decades later, the United States finds itself mired in Afghanistan in what has become the longest war in American history.

Forget the Soviet Union — if ever there was a nation to boycott, it was Nazi Germany. Calls for the United States to bow out of the 1936 Olympics in Hitler’s Berlin were legion. Yet had we done so, there would never have been a Jesse Owens proving on the track and field for all the world to see that Hitler’s notion of “Aryan superiority” was a sick joke.

So for the next two weeks in Sochi, we look forward to thrilling competition, as well as a media spotlight trained on human rights in Putin’s Russia.

And if you’re sitting in the stands, feel free to wave a rainbow flag.