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?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Denis Robert

    this will make people long for the “good old days of the Soviet Union”… Memory fades fast, but Putin is determined to prove that democracy “can’t work” in Russia…

  • http://criticallyskeptic-dckitty.blogspot.com/ KevinKat

    The issue with most boycotts of this type is the chance it’ll do anything at all. Too many people have to be bought into the idea to make an effective statement.

  • Andrew T.

    I’m as conflicted as you are. I think a lot of people have a desire to do something in reaction…but it’s not at all clear what would be constructive.

  • James_Jarvis

    Since even the most “enlightened” nations regularly displace the most marginalized members of its society to put on a good face for the Olympics, and given the fact the the Olympics have been destroyed by commercialization maybe its time to end them altogether.

  • Jason Wexler

    I think the only effective way to boycott these Olympics would be to successfully pressure the US to withdraw from them entirely and for Europeans to do the same.

  • Eric Riley

    Should we participate in the Olympics if they take place in countries that allow the torture of prisoners? Including, for example, the USA?

  • L.Long

    Russia is the perfect example of dogmatist gone mad.
    1st they had royalty that said do what we say or die.
    2nd they had a totalitarian dictatorship that said do what we say or die.
    they NEVER were communists in the true sense of the word.
    3rd they are still a totalitarian dictatorship with theocracy thrown in that say do what we say or die.

    But they are not stupid!!!!
    So when the Olympics arrive they will quietly ignore their bigotry till the others all leave and then say see we are nice people, then go back to #3.
    To boycott will only make us look silly. Its just like when Hitler was really thrilled when a black guy beat the pants off the perfect race! The same here lets support our teams and hope we can beat the pants off the russians and demonstrate our superiority.

  • Jason Wexler

    I wasn’t following this blog in 2008 and before… did you are any of the commenters below advocate boycotting the Beijing games? I think if you didn’t than to be consistent you can’t boycott Russia

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    That’s a very fair question. As I said, it’s quite possible to argue that if we use every country after its desert, who shall ‘scape whipping?

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/daylightatheism Adam Lee

    Yeah. I understand people are angry and want to take action, but we should be intelligently angry and take effective action. It’s important not to fall into the trap of, “We must do something. Boycotting the Olympics is something. Therefore, we must do it.”

  • Andrew T.

    That was tried that the last time the Russians hosted the games (summer 1980, hot on the tail of their Afghanistan invasion). Little came out of it but for dashed athlete dreams and a retaliatory boycott of the ’84 games.

  • Eight_Rule_Pig

    Stoli is run by a guy who probably hates Putin more than anyone commenting, and isn’t made in Russia, check out http://brightestyoungthings.com/articles/silly-gays-a-complete-history-of-stoli-vodka-as-told-by-gifs.htm

  • Mick

    Let’s say (just for the sake of argument) that there were good reasons to boycott Beijing and good reasons to boycott Russia.

    If (for whatever reason) I failed to call for a boycott in Beijing that does not prevent me from calling for a boycott in Russia.

    There are many things against which we should protest, but failing to protest against one thing does no preclude us from protesting against other things (even if we are inconsistent with our protests).

  • Jack

    I think ALL Olympics should be boycotted!
    How many homes/meals/schools would the money spent on the Olympics buy?
    How much medical care, education and environmental cleanup would that money buy?
    The idea that a host country can force its homeless and poor to “move” to areas of the city that aren’t venues for Games is inhuman!
    Boycott all Olympic Games until everyone on earth has a home, food to eat and an opportunity to be educated.

  • Jason Wexler

    Outside of this blog and the gay media I haven’t really seen any discussion of what is going on in Russia, nor have I seen calls to boycott Russia, its products or the Sochi Olympics as a result of those policies. So I don’t see this really going anywhere regardless. We are more likely to see a backlash if an openly gay gold medal winner is persecuted by Russia during or after the fact.

  • Austin

    An tough call. What’s definitely a bad idea is an official US boycott. The US govt has no moral high ground to stand on, and whenever it attempts to do so, it’s rather easy for the rest of the world to stop listening. This is especially true in light of the whole snowden/prism scandal. Russia will just say claim that the boycott is because they gave Snowden asylum and the rest of the world will get behind russia.

  • KBM

    This is a very tough call as so many others have said. I do no think a boycott will amount to much, and therefore if done, will be ineffective. Putin is playing Obama and the US! Unfortunately, our government is no match for him. He sees himself as the newly appointed Czar of Russia and is working toward requiring all of the lost property after the fall of the Soviet State.

    I also think about the years of training our athletes have done. To dash their hopes and dreams for a political debacle would not be prudent and there would be no long term benefit to the US by such a move.

    Putin’s hand will be strengthened just like it has by his giving of the finger to the US over Snowden. The way to best him is to beat his athletes in competition! To raise the American flag high and proud on his soil and in front of his people. That is the ultimate victory!

  • GCT

    The way to best him is to beat his athletes in competition! To raise the American flag high and proud on his soil and in front of his people. That is the ultimate victory!

    What?

  • KBM

    It’s SYMBOLIC you ass! Sort of like Jesse Owens in 1936. Look it up if you are not familiar.

  • Austin

    Oh boy…here come the ‘patriots’. I don’t know whether you actually read Adam’s post, but this has nothing to do with US vs. Russia patrioitic crap

  • GCT

    This has nothing to do with Jesse Owens, nor is it in any way similar. ‘Oooo, look, our athlete beat your athlete so therefore we are better people and our politics/policies are better!’ Sorry, that doesn’t work.

  • KBM

    You are right it is not. But if you are going to compete, it is good symbolism especially in that culture. Currently the US has empowered and emboldened Putin at every turn.

  • GCT

    And our athletes winning a sporting competition will show him…how exactly?

  • Timothy Weston

    Instead of a boycott, how about passing out rainbow-striped armbands to the athletes and officials?


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