Enemy at the Games: Should Countries Boycott the 2014 Olympics?

Although the Cold War ended more than two decades ago, the first Olympic Games to be held in the new (more-or-less) democratic Russian Federation has managed to spark rumblings of a boycott of the games. This motion doesn’t stem from military action as when the USSR’s occupation of Afghanistan prompted 65 countries to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow. In 2013, people are calling on countries to abstain from the Winter Games in Sochi because of the host country’s new laws against homosexuals.

Opponents of boycotting the Olympics, such as Patrick Burke, argue that the boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics was a failed attempt to politicize the games whereas Team USA's defeat of the USSR's hockey team in the Winter Games that year ("The Miracle on Ice") made an indelible mark on sports history.
Patrick Burke argues in favour of sending athletes to the 2014 Olympics by referring to the 1980 Olympics. The boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow is an unremarkable event in comparison to Team USA’s defeat of the USSR’s hockey team in the Winter Games that same year. The boycott became a forgettable, political event whereas the “Miracle on Ice” left an indelible mark on sports history.

The Russian parliament has recently passed a number of bills into laws that diminish the rights and authorize the persecution of homosexuals. The scope of these laws is purposefully vague in order, it would seem, to give law enforcement sweeping powers to prosecute homosexuals and those who support them. Both Russian citizens and visitors are being subjected to these draconian, discriminatory laws.

Anything considered likely to ““spread information about non-traditional sexual behaviour” to minors is prohibited. Harvey Fierstein notes that these laws legally enable police to detain anyone who “propagates unorthodox lifestyles” by kissing someone of the same sex in public, displaying symbols of the LGBT community such as the rainbow flag, or publicly stating that homosexuals are not evil.

These conditions have sparked a debate as to whether or not countries should boycott the 2014 Olympics. Since this issue will be a recurring topic during coverage of the games, I’ve curated some links below that discuss if and how athletes should participate. They also address what fans, governments, sports organizations, and broadcasters should do to address Russia’s attack on human rights.

As the posts below demonstrate, both sides of the boycott debate offer compelling arguments. Personally, I’m undecided as to whether athletes should or should not participate. I will continue to weigh out the issue as it develops toward the beginning of the games. Right now, my primary concern with the games is the safety and well-being of all the athletes and support staff that plan to be in Sochi.  In particular, we need to make sure that we treat those involved in the Olympics fairly regardless of whether or not they take a stand against the host country.

If athletes or people staffing the Olympic teams wish to protest Russia’s laws, I think that we should support them. However, if they choose not to protest Russia’s politics of discrimination, then we should also support (or at least respect) their decision. Neither the athletes nor their support staff (whatever their sexual orientation might be) should be forced to take a stand.

I imagine a lot of athletes are opposed to taking part in a boycott for personal reasons. They have been preparing their entire lives for the opportunity to compete at the Olympics. They have made tremendous sacrifices for the sake of training. It isn’t reasonable to demand that they pass on the chance to fulfill their aspirations in order to support a political movement that has embroiled their goal of competing on an international stage. The athletes, of course, had no choice in the selection of the host city. Many of them would probably prefer to make the most of a bad situation by filtering Russia’s political morass so that they can focus on their events.

For athletes who are in their prime or might not be able to compete in the next Olympics, a boycott might seem like throwing their life’s ambitions away to take a stand that may not (or, as Patrick Burke says in the article posted below, will not) likely cause any significant change.

I don’t mean to say that any athlete who boycotts the games has squandered his or her talents naïvely. Rather, I’m saying that we should not fault either the athletes who refuse to boycott the games or those who do. Since the restriction of liberty lies at the heart of this controversy, we should not restrict our athletes’ freedom s to act as they see fit by pressuring them to attend, boycott, or protest while competing in Sochi.

If the athletes do participate, we shouldn’t expect them to jeopardize their own well-being to protest the host country’s laws. Right now we can only speculate as to whether or not law enforcers would actually imprison members of national teams who defy Russia’s new laws. Patrick Burke considers this scenario highly unlikely, but such assumptions might delude athletes into a false sense of security.

If the athletes do take such a stand against the Russian government, they should do so knowing that there may be dire (albeit short-term) consequences.  According Russia’s laws, non-citizens can be detained for up to 14 days before being deported. Personally, the notion of imprisonment in general scary enough without having to specify that we’re talking about Russian prisons, which inevitably connote soviet gulags. It certainly wouldn’t be advisable for anyone whose career depends upon their physical conditioning to take a sojourn in jail for two weeks.

One could argue that the Olympics are a highly politicized event in general, but I do not believe that each participant sees herself or himself as a political activist by default. Like their support staff, most Olympians are likely focused on doing their jobs and living up to the honour of being chosen to participate in an event that is intended to propagate global unity (even if that sentiment is just a form of pageantry that conceals the inherently political nature of the games).

Instead of placing the impetus to act on members of each national team, we should instead apply political pressure on the International Olympic Committee, federal governments, and other organizations whose involvement in the games are primarily political.


1. Matt Stopera (via Buzzfeed), 36 Photos From Russia That Everyone Needs to See

Matt Stopera offers a pictorial overview of the (often violent) suppression of homosexuality in Russia. Protestors in support of LGBT rights and their opponents clash. If we accept the proverbial picture-to-word ratio, this gallery offers 36 000 words on the political climate in Russia.

2. Sara C. Nelson (Huffington Post), ‘Gay Athletes & Tourists Could Face Arrest During Russia’s 2014 Sochi Olympic Games’: Lawmaker Vitaly Milonov

Nelson addresses discrepancies between what the Russian Government and International Olympic Committee are saying about how athletes will be treated in Sochi. Russian politician Vitaly Milonov (who co-sponsored the bill against “non-traditional relationships”) asserts that the discriminatory laws against homosexuals “cannot be selectively enforced nor suspended.” In contract, the IOC claims that “the Russian government has given assurances as to the safety of athletes and supporters, regardless of their sexual orientation.” When asked to respond to the IOC’s claim, Milonov stated that he was unaware  of any such comment from the Russian government. He also avowed that the government would be “acting in accordance with Russian law.”

Perhaps most troubling is the way in which Russia’s laws might become a wedge issue in American politics. Milonov claims to have “spoken with many American politicians” and says that they were supportive of “the stance [he’s] taken on this issue.”

3. Dan Savage, Why I’m Boycotting Russian Vodka

Dan Savage argues that, if there isn’t a boycott of the 2014 Olympic Games, there should at least be a significant protest. He suggests that athletes take Tommie Smith and John Carlos as models. These athletes protested the treatment of African-Americans by making a “black power salute” on the podium after accepting their medals. Savage believes that a similar demonstration should be made during the medal ceremonies.

Savage also encourages fans to express their opposition to Russia’s discriminatory laws by boycotting Russian vodka. Calls for a boycott of the games as well as Russian vodka; since most people cannot boycott the games with any effect, they can protest Russia’s actions by refusing to buy Russian vodka and tell the proprietors of gay and straight bars that they should dump all vodka from Russia.

4. Patrick Burke, LGBT Olympian and Allies Should Show Up in Russia

I’m generally a big fan of Patrick Burke and all that he has accomplished with the You Can Play Project.  Burke is “staunchly against the idea of a boycott,” which makes sense. After all, the mission of his organization focuses on enabling athletes to play regardless of race, religion, or sexuality.

The Burkes supporting the You Can Play project
Patrick and his father Brian Burke supporting the You Can Play project

However, I find his take on the boycott problematic. His main argument is that players can achieve more politically and personally by going to Sochi than by boycotting the Olympics. To use his own words, “History remembers those who show up.”

Based on the examples he chooses, it seems that it’s not just showing up by making some sort of demonstration that matters. Burke, though, doesn’t address what sort of demonstration would be appropriate.

What’s strange is that Burke doesn’t seem to see such demonstrations as acts that politicize the Olympics. In arguing against boycotts, he says, “The time has come for us to recognize that politicizing sport only limits sport’s real potential to change the world.” Yet he doesn’t oppose the overtly political actions of Smith and Carlos during the 1968 Olympic Games. Indeed, he mentions that “some of the individuals who go will feel compelled to take a stand” without clarifying whether that form of politicizing the event is acceptable while boycotting is not.

5. LGBT Sports Coalition, Statement

The LGBT Sports Coalition released a statement clarifying its stance on the proposed boycott. The coalition has resolved to focus on participation: “Whether or not an athlete is a member of the LGBT community, everyone who qualifies for these Games deserves the opportunity to compete safely.”

The coalition feels that the games will provide “an opportunity to showcase the damage of repressive governments like that of President Putin.”

The coalition does not cfeel that athletes must protest Russia’s discriminatory laws, but they are “ready, willing and able to help any entity—be they nation, corporation or athlete—battle…anti-gay laws in the Olympic host nation.” However, the onus to shine a light on the injustice of Russia’s laws falls primarily on the IOC and other “Olympic power brokers,” which include broadcasters who will cover the games.

6. Johnette Howard (ESPN), Olympians Speak Out

Howard’s article features quotes from Blake Skjellerup, a speed skater who competed for New Zealand in the 2010 Olympics. He’s also one of the few openly gay Olympians.

Skjellerup opposes the notion of a boycott because he believes such an action ultimately alienates people and forces players such as himself back into the closet.  He plans to show his support for LGBT communities by wearing a rainbow pin if he participates in the 2014 games. Like the LGBT Sports Coalition, Skjellerup sees it as the responsibility of the IOC to guarantee his safety as he defies Russia’s anti-homosexual laws.

7. Harvey Fierstein, Russia’s Anti-Gay Crackdown

The scary thing about Fierstein’s op-ed is that it sounds hyperbolic until you read his evidence and realize that he may have actually understated the peril faced by members of the LGBT community who live in or visit Russia.

The laws imposed against homosexuals essentially prevent any debate on tolerance itself, which means that it is illegal to question the justness of persecuting people on account of their sexuality. Even more disturbing is Russia’s rise in violent crime against people suspected of being or supporting homosexuals. Fierstein sees this as a result of adopting laws that essentially criminalize homosexuality.

Fierstein argues that the IOC “must demand the retraction of these laws under threat of boycott.” If not, all countries involved run the risk of repeating the past: in 1936, countries did not pressure Hitler to change his regime’s anti-Semitic laws. While some point to those Olympics as a sign of triumph because Jesse Owens defied Nazi racial ideology by winning multiple medals, Fierstein implies that this demonstration of defiance ultimately did nothing to prevent the Holocaust and World War II. He concludes that people living in or visiting Russia will continue to suffer so long as the IOC tolerates intolerance.

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