Russian President Vladimir Putin is a bad guy. He's retaliated against political opponents, presided over human rights abuses, pushed an absurd law, based on stunning self-delusion, that bans so-called "homosexual propaganda," and is basically taking Russia back to its scary, communist-era days.
Is this any reason to punish athletes?
German President Joachim Gauck has opted not to attend the winter Olympics in Sochi – the reason being, a German news magazine reported, to protest the Putin regime (Gauck's spokesman has not given an official reason). And now French President Francois Hollande is skipping the competitions a well – again, no official reason given. There have been scattered calls for President Obama to follow suit.
What, exactly, does that accomplish? Would it make the narcissistic and authoritarian Putin change his ways? Would he be so moved by the global snub that he would re-evaluate the anti-gay law? This is someone who is pressuring Ukraine to choose sides between Russia and the West as he tries to recapture the bad old days. Not showing up for the Olympic Games isn't going to change his mind – in fact, it feeds the idea that Russia is being somehow victimized by the West.
In cases of extreme misbehavior by a country, sanctions can work (they worked in South Africa, and they brought Iran to the negotiating table, giving hope for a renewed relationship for the first time in decades). But disengaging for disengagement's sake accomplishes nothing other than giving the snubber a sense of moral superiority. And that's useless if the snub-ee has no moral compass.
Engaging allows critics to make their point more clearly. They could wear Amnesty International T-shirts, or openly discuss whether Cam or Mitchell is the better gay parent on "Modern Family." Maybe slip a couple of "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" DVDs into a gift basket for Putin (hint: do not pose shirtless on horseback, Vladimir. It's not a good look for you).
Boycotting the Olympics doesn't punish Putin. It punishes the athletes. The reason world leaders (or their spouses or deputies) show up for the Olympics is to cheer on their home team. These athletes have been training for many years, and they deserve to have someone from their home country there to support them – even if it is a Putin production