NEW YORK (Reuters) – Four-time Olympian Angela Ruggiero greeted the announcement of the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Games with relief on Monday, delighted that there was no suggestion athletes should also stay away.
Ruggiero, who won ice hockey gold for the United States in 1998 and later served as a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said it was important that athletes were not penalised for politics.
“My initial reaction was a bit of relief that it wasn’t anything more dramatic,” Ruggiero told Reuters by phone.
“You know, you work all your life to compete and you never want politics to get in the way of that chance.
“President Biden and others, obviously, wanted to make a statement and use the levers that they had without affecting the athletes, so I think that’s what we saw in this diplomatic boycott.”
Officials said on Monday that U.S. President Joe Biden would not send government officials to the upcoming Winter Olympics due to China’s human rights “atrocities”.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki added, though, that athletes would have the government’s full support, and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) released a statement affirming that the team would be going to China.
Full-scale withdrawal of countries from the Olympics have been uncommon since the 1980 the 1984 Summer Games were severely impacted by political protests.
The United States led 66 nations in pulling out of the 1980 Moscow Games over the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, while the Communist Bloc responded in kind at the Los Angeles Olympics four years later.
“I’ve heard stories of the boycott in ’80 and ’84 and what that did to the athletes that weren’t able to compete,” said Ruggiero.
“Can we have these harder conversations without penalising the athletes at the end of the day? … I think that’s the middle ground.”
U.S. Olympians earlier this year voiced concern over China’s track record on human rights, after advocacy groups and U.S. lawmakers called on the IOC to postpone the Games or relocate the event.
Ruggiero, who is CEO of sports and technology firm Sports Innovation Lab, said there were ways other than boycotts for athletes to make their views known, although they should not feel pressured to do so.
“Some athletes might just want to show up and compete and not have to think about anything other than their competition, others might see this as their platform for affecting change in broader ways than just their performance,” she said.
“Athletes should treat these Olympics in whatever way feels best for them and right for them, and know that everyone is looking out for their safety first and foremost.”
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York, editing by Nick Mulvenney/Peter Rutherford)