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what should the world do about sochi?

Image: Bosc d'Anjou

Image: Bosc d’Anjou

Almost as soon as the Russian government passed its anti-gay legislation in June, there were questions about how the law would impact the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Less than a year to go until the games, international athletes were in training with their eyes on gold; for some it will be their first games and for others the last opportunity they’ll get to hear their anthem played in front of the entire world.

Discussion of whether to boycott the games in response to the anti-gay law – which vaguely prohibits any “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” – has increased in recent weeks. On 26 August, Putin’s government banned protests during the games and extended the law to visiting athletes and tourists. Russian pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva challenged the international condemnation at a press conference earlier this month saying, ‘We are very afraid about our nation because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people.

‘We just live with boys with woman, woman with boys.’

Isinbayeva was responding to the two Swedish athletes who painted their nails with the rainbow to show their support for the LGBT community. They were asked to paint over them.

Most recently, two more female athletes kissed on the podium in apparent protest and Prison Break actor Wentworth Miller declined an invitation to the St. Petersburg Film Festival, writing, ‘I cannot in good conscience participate in a celebratory occasion hosted by a country where people like myself are being systematically denied their basic right to live and love openly.’

Heads of state, LGBT organisations, journalists, athletes and regular citizens have opposed the law and invoked the memory of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. The Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan and the Cold War had been underway for more than two decades. The United States led 61 countries in a boycott of the summer games. Now many are suggesting history repeat itself: what better way to shame Moscow than with a poor turnout in Sochi next year?

With this new law and the memory of the Pussy Riot trial still fresh, it’s natural to leap to a boycott. It’s an immediate, economic and political response: the Olympic games are as much about politics as they are sport. There was the massacre in the village at Munich in 1972 and the events of the Cold War played out in Moscow and again in Los Angeles in 1984, when the Soviet Union boycotted the games in retaliation. Some states boycotted the 1939 Games in Berlin after the Nazis came to power and many more in 1956 at the height of the Suez Crisis. These are only a few instances: throughout the 20th century, several countries have withdrawn or been suspended from participation because of various foreign and domestic policies.

On one hand, it makes sense to pressure countries into changing their laws by threatening to shun their games. According to The Atlantic Wire, Sochi could be the most expensive winter games yet. Costs have risen to $50 billion –  more than twice what the Russian government projected when it placed its bid in 2007. While much has been spent to improve public transit, telecommunication and electric power systems, a large amount is, obviously, being spent on new sports arenas. As any city that has ever hosted the games – either summer or winter – can attest, those arenas are often abandoned once they’ve fulfilled their use. The money tourists and athletes spend on event tickets, transportation, and accommodations and within the local economy is enormous incentive to spend billions on sports venues, even if they are in danger of being obsolete once the Olympic flame goes out.

But withdrawing this source of revenue from Russia will likely do nothing to change the anti-gay law. Isinbayeva is correct, only in that it reflects the prevailing attitudes in the highest levels of Russian government and a large portion of the public. Attitudes toward LGBT communities across countries cannot easily be reversed through one international protest over the course of 17 days. Additionally, Justin Ling argues in Daily Xtra that the conspicuous absence of LGBT allies in Sochi next year could actually be counterproductive.

‘Russian queers don’t need you to stay at home in protest; they need you to show up and defend their turf.’

By focusing on the economic losses to the nation, the pro-boycott faction ignores the fact that those they are trying to help will inevitably be harmed as well.

One of the more common defenses for going to the games comes from the athletes themselves. To some, the chance at Olympic gold is separate from their politics. To others – athletes and spectators – the opportunity isn’t worth the moral implications. The emphasis on a boycott as the “right” thing to do means some will have to dispute the assumption that by competing in Sochi, they support the law.

Politically, a boycott would be highly hypocritical. The United States, for one, is only slowly moving toward marriage equality but remains one of many countries in the world that systemically discriminates against the LGBT community. Should the International Olympic Committee suspend these countries from the Olympics, as they did with South Africa until the end of apartheid? And if the Olympics can be used to oppose government policies and strong-arm countries into adopting acceptable human rights practices, why do some countries go unchallenged?

No one seriously thought to boycott Beijing in 2008 despite its rigid censorship and other human rights abuses. Then, only three G8 countries said they would skip the opening ceremonies. Wrote TIME magazine in 2008, ‘…All have insisted their decision was based on scheduling rather than politics.’ There were only very small (local) protests in Vancouver, Canada in 2010 during the Winter Olympics over the treatment of that country’s Aboriginal population.

Maybe it’s because a call to protest is the most instinctual form of slacktivism there is, especially when oppressive government policies seem to spring up out of nowhere. What better way to take a stand without doing much of anything than to claim you’re going to simply ignore the opposition? Human rights violations in China and Canada have been ongoing; they are institutionalised and have been reinforced for decades. Likewise, the marginalisation of the LGBT community and its activists continues in even those countries condemning Putin’s government. These things take a much more determined effort to change.

The Olympics may present a prime opportunity to condemn a government, but if the world wants to take a stand against the bill, it will need to be consistent and long-term: support non-profits and human rights organisations in Russia, regularly report on the persecuted and the activists and most importantly, set an example.

Not that protests and demonstrations can’t be powerful – they absolutely can. But is demanding that athletes and spectators stay away from Russia truly demonstrative of one’s support of Russia’s LGBT citizens? Since Sochi would arguably not be any worse off without the expected turnout (it would eliminate plenty of competition for Russia, at least) there is no significant loss to the Kremlin or its supporters. If that’s the case, there seems to be more to lose by sitting out than by showing up.

What do you think, Lipsters? Should we boycott the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi on account of their anti-gay laws?

One thought on “what should the world do about sochi?

  1. Yes….I think any athlete who believes the Russian prohibition on homosexuality is wrong should withdraw from competition. Note that I said ‘athlete’ rather than ‘team’. It’s a matter of personal conscience and as such should be responded to by personal action. Were I to be a competitor I would have withdrawn already. Let’s face it…. the days of the true Olympic Spirit are long gone. It is nothing but a commercial jamboree shrouded in noble intentions and gaining a medal from this event cannot compare to the knowledge that you have championed the cause for freedom to choose how to live and love.

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