“If all GB athletes wore rainbow flags and Cameron turned up to the Kremlin with a rainbow tie, then that would be great,” said Anna Grigoryeva, 24, a Cambridge student from Moscow. “But they’re not going to.“
Some members of the international community have proposed a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as a way to express opposition to discriminatory policies in Russia. However, high-profile actors, including Barack Obama, David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), have all rejected the idea of a boycott. Even outside of the political and sporting elite there does not seem to be anything close to the kind of mass support required. Arguing for a boycott is to fight an uphill battle from the very start.
Moreover, the main pro-LBGT arguments against a boycott are based on a flawed understanding of the control with which major sporting events in any country (and authoritarian states in particular) are run and the nature of modern international sporting events themselves. This article seeks to disprove the main arguments against a boycott, thus demonstrating the potential effectiveness of a boycott.
The first argument against a boycott is that it would simply be ineffective compared to the impact of making a statement for LGBT rights at the Winter Olympics themselves. Examples from Olympic history, such as Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ salute for racial equality, contrast with less-successful boycott attempts in 1968, 1980 and 1984 and, as such, provide support for the argument against a boycott. More successful boycotts, such as the systematic exclusion of apartheid South Africa from almost every major competitive sport for almost 20 years, offer perhaps a more appropriate example of what can be done with serious international support against regimes that violate human rights.
However, trading historical parallels misses a more substantive counter to the “Olympics-as-a-statement” argument. As the Olympics have become the television-driven sporting event we know today, governments, corporations and the IOC itself have turned the stage-management of the event into a form of high art. At the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the only protestors allowed were located in “safe assembly areas” several miles from the sporting venues, with access to such areas subject to permission by Chinese officials. These are not just the signs of a particularly autocratic Olympics; the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver was set to use such safe assembly areas until massive public outcry forced a stand-down.
Meanwhile, the 2012 Olympics saw more British troops deployed in London than in Afghanistan, backed up by increased surveillance, the removal of potential protestors and the passage of enhanced penalties for civil disobedience. As for the participants themselves, the International Olympic Committee’s charter bans “political propaganda” at all venues, with violators facing expulsion from the event or even a ban from future events.
Those who hope that a statement will occur in Sochi are gambling on either external protests, organized and acknowledged in an authoritarian nation at an event that has measures to specifically marginalize such undesirable activity, or that some athlete will jeopardize his or her entire top-level sporting career by a speech or act that is proscribed under the charter of the IOC itself. Neither option gives much ground for optimism.
The second argument against a boycott is that the Olympics themselves are an international, apolitical forum. It is this belief that informs the ban on political propaganda in the IOC charter. Regardless of the validity of this belief, it remains largely indisputable that every modern Olympics since Berlin in 1936 has been as much about promoting the host country as it has been about promoting sporting achievement. This phenomenon is particularly strong in non-Western, authoritarian states, with Beijing in 2008 providing perhaps the best example.
Even if protests receive international attention or an athlete makes a political statement, the story in the media – the Russian media especially – will be on the success of the event, and by extension, the success of Putin. A successful boycott, however, would shift the focus entirely onto Russia’s human rights abuses by depriving Putin of the bread and circuses of Olympic glory. The majority of Russians who support the anti-gay laws will see Putin as a weak leader who threw away Russia’s international moment because he could not stand up to Western pressure, and those who support gay rights in Russia will forever have a powerful argument in showing the price that Russia pays for reneging on its commitments to equality, human rights and freedom of expression.
Showing up at the Sochi Olympics will allow gross human rights violations to be overshadowed by an explicitly apolitical event and the implicit message that Russia is trying to send through its hosting of it. Boycotting the games has been presented as the solution of idealists. But it is even more idealistic to assume that an effective statement could be made in a country so hostile to LGBT rights, at an event that is also hostile to any form of overt politics. Those who believe that protests from participants will have greater effect than a boycott underestimate how much modern Olympics are stage-managed to prevent exposure of such views, as well as the dominance of the media message presenting the Winter Olympics as a victory and a source of legitimacy for Russia and Putin.