Is It Worth Boycotting the Russian Olympics?

I’ve written about Russia’s hostile and oppressive treatment of artists and the Russian Orthodox church’s increasingly close alliance with the state, but in the last few years, things have gone from bad to worse. Journalists and anti-corruption activists have been murdered with impunity. Critics of the state have been subjected to trumped-up charges and show trials. Gay pride marches have been banned, and supporters of gay rights have been brutally assaulted by the police and mobs of skinhead thugs (warning: possibly disturbing images at that link). Under Vladimir Putin, Russia is well on its way to becoming a violent, thuggish dictatorship.

And a few weeks ago, as Harvey Fierstein writes, Russia enacted some of the most draconian and regressive anti-gay laws yet. They ban the adoption of Russian children to any parents in any country in the world that has marriage equality and criminalize “homosexual propaganda”, a term deliberately left vague so that any advocacy of gay rights whatsoever falls within its ambit. Even a gay couple holding hands in public would likely be subject to arrest.

This all matters because the 2014 Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia. Would it be rewarding Putin’s totalitarian attitude for the world community to show up, to act as if these laws make no difference to Russia’s standing in the community of nations?

Where a boycott has an opportunity to strike directly at the party responsible, I’m all for it – as with the campaign to dump Russian vodka. That probably won’t do much by itself other than make a symbolic point, but if the international community can use broader boycotts or sanctions to inflict direct economic damage on Russia in retaliation for these brutal laws, we’d send a message that bigotry has a cost, just the same way as divestment helped bring down the apartheid regime of South Africa.

On the other hand, I have to wonder if boycotting the Olympics is too indirect to do any real good. After all, as an individual, the most I could do is not watch the games on TV. If enough people joined in, that would hurt the sponsors of the products being advertised, which would in turn hurt NBC, the network that’s airing the Olympics. But since that isn’t even a Russian network, it would have no real effect on the country. Arguably, this is too many levels removed from the cause of the problem to have any chance of accomplishing anything meaningful. (When asked directly about Russia’s laws, NBC gave an evasive and noncommittal reply, so take that for what you will.)

The counterargument, made by gay Olympians like Greg Louganis, is that the Olympics are a global stage in the truest sense of the word, and so they offer an unsurpassable opportunity to shine a light on the Russian government’s brutality and stand in solidarity with Russian LGBT people. A symbolic statement of protest – like a gold-medal winner wearing a rainbow flag on the podium, say, or a country’s Olympic squad flying pro-gay signs and banners during the parade of nations – could be a powerful way to shame the Russian government, to cast light on what they’re doing and let LGBT people in Russia know that the world is with them. I acknowledge that this is a good argument – if anyone really is willing to engage in such a protest.

On the other other hand, one has to wonder if making such a statement would put the athlete’s personal safety at risk. The IOC claims to have assurances from the Kremlin that the law won’t be enforced against foreigners coming to participate in the Olympics (as if that’s supposed to make us feel better about ourselves), but the Russian lawmaker who co-sponsored the anti-gay-propaganda bill has insisted that it applies to everyone in the country, including Olympic athletes and spectators. Russia’s minister of sports has said the same. I think that if I were a gay Olympic athlete (or tourist or journalist), I’d have to give serious consideration to whether it would be safe to travel to Russia.

Personally, I haven’t decided where I stand on this. You could certainly argue that Russia isn’t the first Olympic host with a miserable human-rights regime. The same arguments could have been made about China, which is equally well-known for its brutal intolerance of reformers and democracy advocates. If the Olympics can only be held in countries with a spotless record, we’re going to be waiting a very long time for the next one. What do you think?

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