If you are unaware of what’s going on, here is an update from inside the Russian Bear. The situation for homosexuals in Russia has regressed into Soviet style treatment. Today, over 80% of Russians support the new anti-gay propaganda laws. Neo-Nazi groups have been encouraged by the wave of state sponsored discrimination against homosexuals and are roaming Russian society and posting films of themselves on Russian social media websites torturing gay youths. 5% of Russians see outright liquidation of homosexuals altogether as a quick final solution. This all seems awkwardly reminiscent of something…
The Russian laws passed in 2013 aimed at stopping “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” aimed towards protecting minors violate several key tenants of a liberal democratic states. It impedes the freedom of expression; it hinders the security of the individual, and the freedom of protection of arbitrary law. Moscow has banned gay pride parades for the next 100 years. Russian anti-gay laws have definitions so broad that virtually anyone with any connection to, or statement on homosexuality could be fined or arrested. Russians found spreading ‘homosexual propaganda’ can be fined up to 10 000 rubels. Foreigners can expect up to a 100 000 rubel fine, and a 15 day prison sentence/deportation as a result of promoting “gay propaganda.”
What makes this law so frightening? It is the ultimate proof of the degradation of Russia under Putin. It is only the latest move in a state which has accumulated total control over traditional media outlets, where election fraud is rampant (witness the 146% regional electoral turnout in the 2011 election), racism is on the rise and the political opposition to Putin is targeted and imprisoned (e.g: Khodorkovsky, Alexei Gaskarov etc.). Russia returning to an authoritarian state is one thing, but returning to a dogmatic nation that routinely assaults its own citizens and their rights is an entirely different story. Of course, Russia is not yet as bad as Saudi Arabia and Iran, which simply exterminate homosexuals. But these states have never been liberal. What is worrying is that Russia is a developed state, an ex-superpower that liberalised after the fall of the Soviet Union and Iron Curtain. Once a developed, modern state accepts universal human rights it is extremely rare and dangerous for it to repeal these rights, and is mainly an attribute of authoritarian regimes rather than liberal democratic states. Russia has infinitely more influence in the world than Sub-Saharan countries and thus the return to deterioration of human rights sets an unacceptable precedent.
Those who claim that sports and politics are separate and should remain so are naïve and ignorant. The Olympics are almost entirely a political game. It brings a great deal of prestige, economic investment and international attention to the host nation, which is why states pour billions into financing the games. The Olympic hosts aren’t a group of sporting clubs who volunteer to put on a competition, they are governments who recognise the political power benefits of hosting the worlds biggest sports competition. Sports do not exist independently of politics, they are used by states to bolster nationalism and prove their own national superiority. Athletes rely on the state for their own security and their rights as citizens. Athletes cannot remain oblivious to the enormous audience they have as Olympic competitors and the impact they make on millions of people.
Moscow 1980 and Apartheid South Africa
The West has boycotted Russian Olympics once before. In 1980, the U.S. followed by another 63 countries decided to boycott the Moscow Olympics as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Though many athletes did not compete, and the USSR did not pull out of Afghanistan for another 10 years, the West sent a strong moral message. Russia was humiliated, lost a considerable amount of financial investment as a result of the boycott and so the prestige of the superpower was severely wounded.
The International Olympic Committee have previously also excluded human rights violators like South Africa during its policy of Apartheid. This sent a strong message to the regime and South Africa was only allowed to return to the Olympics once the Apartheid policy fell. This strategy however, would not be possible against great sporting powers like Russia who consistently ranks among the top 5 nations in terms of medals won. It seems that this tactic would be impractical against great powers, and only effective against smaller human rights abusers.
Many people argue that sports and politics are disconnected and unrelated. Indeed they question whether there would be any benefit to an Olympic boycott at all. Interestingly, this is what Avery Brundage and the U.S government argued before the 1936 Munich Olympics. There is no doubt however that the success of the 1936 Olympics was used by Hitler to prove to Germans the greatness of his rule and the success of Germany on the international stage. He milked the Olympics for all it was worth and sought to prove that Germany was recognised by the international community. Just as Hitler tried to assuage the international community by respecting Jewish and black competitors at the Olympic Games, so has Putin tried to halt any attempt at boycott by reassuring the international community that the protection and respect towards international gay athletes at the event will be assured. This is a pathetic attempt at reconciliation. Western governments should not only be worried about the treatment of their own athletes, but should be worried about the rights of the citizens of the country they are competing in.
The last thing Putin wants is a Western boycott. It would make him look weak; it would damage Russia internationally, and would make his games look pathetic. Indeed, what would a Winter Olympic game without North America or Western Europe look like? With the exception of Russia, all the other top 15 winter Olympic nations are Western. However, in this one instance, Putin’s position is the wise one.
There are three options for nations participating at Sochi.
- Participate and avoid addressing the human rights violations.
- Participate and encourage athletes to demonstrate and show sympathy for the LGBT cause.
- Boycott the Winter Olympics all together.
The West should compete in Sochi 2014 on two conditions. It should compete only if it actively encourages athletes to protest. During medal awarding ceremonies, athletes should demonstrate their sympathy towards Russian LGBT citizens. Putin’s laws should be criticised during victory speeches. Athletes should follow in the footsteps of Emma Green Tegaro from Sweden and Blake Skjellerup from New Zealand who actively and symbolically oppose the Russian human rights abuses by wearing the rainbow colours. Tegaro painted her finger nails in rainbow colours during the Moscow 2013 World Championship. Skjellerup has warned that he will wear a rainbow pin to the Olympic Games. More athletes should be encouraged to make bolder statements. Governments should support this. This is also what the Russian LGBT Network proposes as it believes Western presence and demonstration will attract more attention and is preferred to an all out boycott.
The second condition however, should be that if any athlete is arrested for “spreading homosexual propaganda” the governments should make it clear that they will immediately pull out their national Olympic delegation and encourage other Western states to join them. It would be more symbolic, effective, and leave a lasting image to first demonstrate and then boycott, than simply doing the latter. Participating is important though only if athletes demonstrate their abhorrence. Arguably the 1968 Olympics with the black power salutes of Tommie Smith and John Carlos have remained engrained in people’s memory much more than the boycotts of 1980 and 1984.
A boycott without first participating will also allow Russians to more easily ignore the Western absence and blow it off as a typical Western attempt to undermine Russian power. However, demonstrating directly to the Russian people over television and through speeches that the West supports the victims of state crime will give more motivation to those who are under attack to keep on fighting for their rights. Russian LGBT youth will find comfort in knowing that athletes all over the world support their right to freedom of expression and protection from arbitrary laws and dare to state so out-rightly on Russian television.
Arguably this situation should never have been able to arise in the first place. The International Olympic Committee should be reprimanded for having allowed both China and Russia to host the Olympics. Human rights violators should not get the international recognition, prestige or legitimacy that hosting the worlds greatest sports event does. The President should be fired for his ignorance in claiming that sports and politics is separate. A key criteria for any host countries should be the universal respect of human rights for not only all the athletes competing but for all the citizens of the host country as well. Those who do not respect the rights of others do not deserve the necessary respect to be allowed to host the planet’s greatest sports competition.