Don’t Boycott 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia Over Anti-Gay Law

An American boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is a lousy idea that will not advance the cause of LGBT equality.

Russia seems to be trying its hardest to piss off America and the world lately. It granted asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden. The Pussy Riot trial still receives international condemnation. Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly stole a Super Bowl ring.

Now Russia has a new law that criminalizes saying anything positive about homosexuality. They’ve already started arresting people. Concern for gay Olympic athletes and fans is warranted.

When Congress gets back from its long summer vacation, Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., plans to introduce a resolution calling on Russia to ensure that athletes and fans “will not experience anti-LGBT discrimination.”

He tweeted, “Olympic discrimination against LGBT athletes and spectators is 100% unacceptable.

Lawmakers love to support athletes, especially Olympians, but Merkley’s resolution will be a tough sell with conservative senators. Republicans have no room in their hearts for openly gay love. The GOP base, still stinging from a Supreme Court decision that took a huge step toward legitimizing same-sex marriage nationwide, will not tolerate a vote that supports gays.

If the resolution does somehow pass, it will only be so much symbolism anyway. The pugnacious Putin won’t let a nonbinding congressional request distract him from tagging polar bears.

“No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable,” Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko threatened.

All of which has some people talking boycott. Rumbles come from both sides of the political spectrum. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., thinks America should stay home over the Snowden incident. Broadway performer and LGBT activist Harvey Fierstein thinks the anti-gay law justifies it.

Calmer heads, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama, have not embraced the idea. Those two rarely agree on anything.

Speaking to Jay Leno the other night, Obama said, “They’re athletes. They’re there to compete, and if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track or in the swimming pool or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”

Well, on the mountain or in the snow or on the ice rink anyway. Winter Olympics, Mr. President, not summer.

It’s not as if America is a shining model of LGBT tolerance. We’re no Russia, but same-sex marriage remains illegal in most states and discrimination based on sexuality is legal. At least you won’t get arrested, unless you live in Virginia where Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial nominee Ken Cuccinelli fights to preserve the commonwealth’s “crimes against nature” law that makes sodomy a felony. Should Americans from more-enlightened states then boycott Virginia and all the others that reject equality?

The best solution would be for the International Olympic Committee to pull out of Russia entirely. It would set an example for other bigoted nations that don’t play nicely on the global stage to see that the international spotlight will skip them.

Actor George Takei endorsed a petition at calling for moving the venue to Vancouver, B.C. More than 100,000 people have signed it. Stephen Fry is making the same argument in the United Kingdom.

This isn’t the first time the Olympics have landed in a despicable and oppressive place. China hosted just a few years ago. The Soviet Union hosted in 1980 at the height of the Cold War and amidst international condemnation of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Nazi Germany hosted in 1936.

Indeed, the Soviet and German games offer guidance for today. When America boycotted the 1980 Olympics, the only thing that changed was the host country won a few more medals. The Berlin Wall stood for almost another decade, and the war in Afghanistan dragged on for years.

America did not boycott Germany. Fierstein calls that decision “tolerating intolerance.” He scoffs at the notion that the triumph of black runner Jesse Owens was worth the lost opportunity to make a moral statement before the Holocaust.

He misses the point. It’s true that participation did not prevent a world war, but a boycott almost certainly would not have either. In 1936, Germany was on a terrible trajectory that the world was not ready or willing to stop.

A black athlete triumphed in front of a monster, winning four gold medals and proving wrong the bigots who preached Aryan superiority. Engagement gave the world a powerful moment that transcended mere sport. It still inspires today.

Would that happen in Russia? Would a rainbow flag-wearing snowboarder from the United States embarrass Putin? There’s no chance if America stays home.

Christian Trejbal is a member of the board of directors of the Association of Opinion Journalists and chair of the Open Government Committee. Overcoming graduate degrees in philosophy, he worked as an editorial writer at The (Bend) Bulletin and The Roanoke Times for more than a decade. In 2013, he and his wife moved to Portland, Ore., where he writes freelance and provides public policy analysis. Or, as his wife prefers to say, he is a stay-at-home dude. Follow him on Twitter @ctrejbal.

Image Source: Dominic Alves

  • Absolutely! I think the best that could happen is for ordinary Russians to see gay athletes as regular competitors.

    It’s hard to see any society that was progressing toward modernization take such giant steps backward. Putin and his party are trying to shore up popular support by playing to people’s worst instincts.

    Of course, as you say, we are not doing so well on that front ourselves.

  • I don’t know if I endorse a boycott or not. But I think you are missing the point. The goal of a boycott would not be to change Putin. Taking a moral high ground is an action that affirms the actor and sends a broad message about where lines lie. We aren’t going to “show the Russians” one way or another, neither with a boycott nor by having LGBT athletes succeed in front of them. We could show ourselves, and others, where we draw the line on human rights, though.

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