Should we boycott the Winter Olympics?

Olympic-Pride-Rings

In June, Russia’s government famously passed a law that bans “gay propaganda”. The law, which passed unanimously (436-0), bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors. As reported in The Guardian:

The law in effect makes it illegal to equate straight and gay relationships, as well as the distribution of material on gay rights. It introduces fines for individuals and media groups found guilty of breaking the law, as well as special fines for foreigners.

According to the Guardian, the fines are as follows:

  • Up to 100 000 rubles (~$3050 US) for individuals who use the media or internet to promote “non-traditional relations”.
  • Up to 1 000 000 rubles (~$30 500 US) for organizations that break the law. Such organizations can also be closed down for up to 90 days.
  • Up to 100 000 rubles (~$3050 US) for foreigners who break the law. These foreigners can also be detained for up to 15 days and be deported.

What exactly is “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”? According to Rebecca Lee Sanchez of globalpost.com, people have been arrested under this new law for the following reasons:

  • Kissing
  • Holding hands
  • Wearing or using rainbows
  • Pro-gay activism
  • “Any statement, oral or otherwise, that is pro-gay.”

Four Dutch filmmakers have already been detained under this law. The filmmakers were later released, but had their film confiscated, were fined 3 000 rubles (~$90 US) each, were kicked out of Russia, and banned from the country for three years.

Why do I bring this up on a website that is predominantly about sports? This new Russian law was passed a mere seven months away from the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place in Sochi in February. The IOC is an inclusive organization that welcomes openly LGBT athletes, spectators, officials, and employees to participate in its activities. There are several openly LGBT athletes who will be participating in the Sochi Olympics. What will happen to these athletes once they arrive in Russia? What about spectators who identify as LGBT?

The IOC has warned Russia that it expects anyone connected with the Games to be exempt from this new law. Reportedly, the IOC has “assurances from the highest level” of the Russian government that this will be so. Of course it’s in the interests of the Russian government to lie if this isn’t going to be the case, so we shouldn’t be surprised at this answer. But it remains to be seen if the Russian government will be true to its word. In addition to the incident with the Dutch filmmakers and several arrests under the new law, there have been disturbing anti-gay hate crimes perpetrated by neo-Nazi groups.

And that brings us to another question: should the Sochi Games be boycotted? To date, the only time the Winter Olympics have been boycotted was in 1980, when Taiwan skipped the Lake Placid Games for being required to compete under the name Chinese Taipei. In addition to gay rights activists, the government of Georgia is also calling for a boycott due to Russia’s involvement in the South Ossetia War.

If there is ever a reason to boycott the Games, this is one such time. This new law — along with a new anti-blasphemy law, which was passed immediately following the “homosexual propaganda” law — infringes on basic human rights. By participating in these Games, the IOC and its participating countries are tacitly endorsing this law, even if all those connected to the games are exempt from it. And despite trying to wash its hands from political issues, the Olympics are an inherently political arena. Choosing to “remain apolitical” is a political choice by itself.

That being said, a boycott probably isn’t the right way to go. Attending the games and making some kind of statement is likely to be a more effective tactic. Over 45 years later, people still remember Tommie Smith and John Carlos for their protest salute during the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. Openly gay New Zealander Blake Skjellerup agrees; he is against a ban and prefers to show up wearing a rainbow pin. While this response is a bit small, hopefully Skjellerup’s public statement will convince at least one athlete to make a larger statement.

- Devin

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