Op-Ed: Don’t Boycott the Games

“Don’t boycott the Games.” This sentiment can be heard from several sides of the debate regarding Putin’s ban on homosexual athletes competing in Sochi at the Winter Olympics in 2014. There are three distinct motivations for not wanting to boycott the Games. The least obvious opponent of a boycott is arguably the Russian LGBT Network. They think the optimal strategy is to mimic the 1968 human rights salute, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists, bowed their heads and thus expressed their stand against racial discrimination from the podium of victory. Succinctly speaking, the motto is to not boycott the Olympics, but to boycott homophobia.

Here’s what the Russian LGBT Network has to say: “We believe that calls…to boycott Sochi…risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity and taking a firm stance against the disgraceful human rights record in this country.”

In favour of its argument, the LGBT Network cites previous boycotts such as the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics, the 1984 ‘retaliation’ boycott of the LA Games and the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City as unsuccessful attempts at taking a stand for human rights. Nobody remembers the names or numbers of those boycotting the Games. Instead, turning up and wielding a symbolic anti-discrimination gesture is far more powerful and leaves a lasting image of peaceful resistance.

The more obvious opponents of a boycott are the Russians themselves. Only 16 percent of Russians think homosexuality should be accepted by society – much fewer than in neighbouring Poland (42 percent). Historically, homosexuality was punished by prison and hard labour in the Soviet Union, and homophobia remained in policy throughout the 60s and 70s. The recent decision by the Duma shows how many Russians still subscribe to this view, and even when the Stalin anti-homosexual law was repealed in 1993, those in prison for sodomy received no amnesty.

On a societal level, Russia has faced economic turmoil and hardship, loss of public services and wide-ranging corruption, all of which are likely to reinforce negative stereotypes. Aside from that, the Russian Orthodox Church has become more and more outspoken in its anti-homosexual stance, calling alternative sexual orientations a ‘social ill’ and a ‘sin’. Against this background, many Russians support Putin and the Duma in their actions against homosexuality and are not in favour of boycotting the Games in Sochi. It is far too early to expect a liberal attitude toward the LGBT community in Russia, but by showing up to the Olympics as athletes, spectators or sponsors and being representative of a more open-minded frame of mind, participants and advocates can at least sow a seed of tolerance.

Finally, leaders in the Western world such as UK PM David Cameron and US President Barack Obama have expressed reluctance to boycott the Games as well. Their justifications are similar to that of the Russian LGBT Network, namely that attending the games is a better way of tackling prejudice against gays. Cameron’s stance is a response to an open letter by British actor and writer Stephen Fry, in which he appeals to Cameron and the IOC to boycott the Games. Obama’s response echoes Cameron, by affirming that the best way to stand against anti-LGBT legislation is to attend the Games and preferably have a gay athlete winning a medal. Whether or not a gay athlete wins a medal is hardly relevant, but it is undeniable that openness – as opposed to isolation and further polarisation – is a better solution to bigotry and human rights violations.

It all comes down to whether or not attending the Games would amount to an endorsement or at least a quiet acceptance of the anti-LGBT legislation and discriminatory rhetoric from Russia. A Sochi boycott could reinforce the Kremlin’s accusation of the West as trying to undermine Russia and being generally out of touch with the sentiments of ‘ordinary Russians’. This stunt of alienating LGBT athletes could be a cunning attempt to consolidate Putin’s support from a widely homophobic nation, but that is exactly why the liberal world should not turn their backs on Sochi, but rather stand as a good example. There seems to be a pretty strong case for soft opposition, in the way of athletes speaking up against anti-LGBT legislation and Western corporate sponsors pushing the issue, gently proving the point that a civilised, argumentative opposition is the best and only way to combat homophobia.

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2 Comments on “Op-Ed: Don’t Boycott the Games”

  1. August 23, 2013 at 3:49 pm #

    Correction: Stephen Fry does not advocate a boycott, but rather that the Games be relocated to another place – he himself suggests Utah or Lillehammer or anywhere else but Russia. I suppose not literally anywhere else, but preferably a spot where homosexuality is tolerated.

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  1. Russia’s Snowden Decision Obscures Economic Problems | Global Risk Insights - August 22, 2013

    […] the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi over the Russian anti-gay law is not realistic, even an informal boycott would wipe out much of the return on $50 billion invested in the Games by the Russian […]

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