Gay Rights and Sochi: Boycott or Protest?

I have been trying to catch up a bit on the emerging discussions regarding a possible boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics that are scheduled to take place in February 2014.

There are growing calls among gay rights activists in western nations that the games should be boycotted -- or at least the threat of a boycott should be used to nudge Vladimir Putin to have the law repealed. I think the threat of a boycott should be taken seriously, in part because of the danger to the safety of gay athletes sent to the games.

The would-be boycotters seem to be in the minority at present. For every voice arguing for a boycott, I have come across several counter-arguments suggesting that athletes and media should go and protest. (One example might be this interview with Adrian Hilton at RT.com, where he specifically takes issue with Stephen Fry's brief calls for a boycott).

The strongest "go and protest, dare them to arrest you" type Op-Ed I've seen is Rosie DiManno's piece published in the Toronto Star on August 13:

I defy any Russian government authority to drag an athlete off the medal podium or a lesbian personality out of the broadcast booth for the crime of making a pro-gay gesture or statement.   
It won’t happen. The imbecilic legislation passed in June will be not merely ignored but exposed for all its ridiculous, draconian ambition. The athletes, primarily, will see to that. Throughout the history of the modern Games, they have always been the ones who’ve rescued the Olympics from politics, ideology and craven greed.
The most iconic image of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin — the Nazi Games — is Jesse Owens accepting his gold medal, on four occasions, even while German rivals gave their “Heil Hitler” salutes. A black man put the boots to Aryan racial superiority, with a sour-faced Hitler looking on. 
While too much of a burden is routinely placed on athletes to exemplify something other than their sporting pre-eminence, in Sochi they will once again transcend the rhetoric and ranting on all sides with memorable performances. That’s as it should be. There will be no boycott, no moving of the Games to another city, as some have promoted. Logistically, it’s impossible. Morally, it’s on slippery turf. 
The Olympics cannot be expected to define any principle beyond the human right to participate in sports, as codified in the International Olympic Committee charter. If condemnation of homophobia were to be the guiding light of interaction among nations, then no country would do any business or maintain diplomatic ties with states — in Africa, in the Muslim world — where homosexuality is a grievous crime, in many cases subject to the death penalty, and persecution heavy-handed. 
It’s only the Olympic brand that has stirred so much passion. Few of these boycott boosters had otherwise bestirred themselves to slam Russia for its pre-existing monstrous human rights record. (link)
There's much in this that I find sympathetic and compelling. The invocation of Jesse Owens in Berlin in 1936 is a powerful one -- and by contrast, history has not been especially kind to the United States' decision to boycott the 1980 Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 
However, one issue that I think Rosie DiManno might dismiss too easily is the actual danger of arrest or imprisonment for the athletes. The Russians themselves have been contradicting one another regarding whether the law will be enforced. While the IOC had earlier said they'd received assurances from Russian officials that gay athletes could plan to attend the games safely, the Russian sports minister recently seemed to contradict that statement when he stated that the law would remain in effect during the games. 
For background, the best summary of how the law works in context (i.e., the rapid growth of social conservative politics in Russia in the past decade) is here. While the law in question claims to be focused on "propaganda of non-traditional sexuality" directed to minors, the first people reportedly arrested under the new law were a group of Dutch tourists making a documentary about gay rights in the Russian city of Murmansk. In other words, hardly conventional "propagandists." 
I think athletes who follow Stephen Fry's call (now that he's given up on the boycott idea) for theatrical and visual protest at the games (i.e., wearing of rainbow flags and so on) should seriously consider the possibility that these public displays could be construed as "propaganda" under the incredibly vague provisions of the Russian law. The IOC, for its part, has not been very helpful, effectively encouraging participating athletes to stay in the closet for the duration of their time in Russia. They should presume that at least some athletes and their supporters at the games will disregard this and test the Russian authorities on their bizarre law. 
Until the issue of enforcement of the law is clarified by Russian authorities, I think the calls for a boycott will continue to gather steam. And with good reason. 


Anonymous said...

What is wrong with people? Don't they have enough problems in their own lives?

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