Monday, July 22, 2013

To Boycott or Not Boycott the Olympics?

Over the course of the last year, Russia has passed many draconian laws regarding the LGBT community. One such law makes it illegal to spread pro-gay "propaganda," except the law's definition of propaganda is extremely broad. The Pride Parades that go on in much of the world during the Summer months are for all intents and purposes outlawed throughout Russia. Anyone flying a rainbow flag, anyone who tells children that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality, and same-sex couples holding hands risk being thrown behind bars. Such laws in the States would be a violation of the freedom of association and freedom of speech which are guaranteed by the first amendment of the United States Constitution. The punishments can run up to a 200,000 ruble fine (which is several thousand U.S. dollars) and jail time. Travelers from outside the country could be detained for 14 days before being deported In short, being "out and proud," or even supporting that notion, is against Russian law. Insulting religious feelings can result in a one year prison term.

With all of this and more (Russia will no longer allow same-sex couple and gay people in general to adopt children from out of the country) in mind, there are LGBT groups in the States calling for the United States Olympic Committee to boycott the 2014 Olympics which will be held in Sochi, Russia (a similar thing happened with human rights watch dog groups calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games held in Beijing, China because of that nation's human rights violations), while other groups are saying that a boycott is a bad idea.

I see both sides of this problem but I think I have come to my own personal conclusion. First and foremost, there are absolutely ZERO excuses for what Russia has done. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that these laws were passed in order to protect children from pedophilia, which shows how categorically ignorant he and members of Russia's government are when it comes to homosexuality. The mayor of Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, is cutting the city's ties with Russia given its homophobic actions. It is the duty of the international community to put pressure on Russia regarding its homophobic laws. I 100% support boycotting vacationing in Russia, purchasing Russian products, etc.

Having said that, I can not say that I support the United States Olympic Committee boycotting the Sochi Games as many are calling for them to do. We are talking about athletes who have spent day-after-day for several years training for the opportunity to represent their country in the Olympic games. These are people's dreams. For some, this will be their last/only chance at making it to the Olympics since they only come around once every four years. I would sincerely hate to see all of that work come to naught but might-have-beens in the end. On a slightly selfish note, Meryl Davis and Charlie White have a really good shot at winning the gold in Ice Dance and I would LOVE to see that happen.

American Figure Skater Johnny Weir
On a more practical point, I do not believe that America alone boycotting the Games would suffice to sway Russia beyond a symbolic gesture (not to belittle symbolic gestures). The only way to truly sway Russia by way of the Olympics would be to either move the Olympics out of Russia or to have several major nations boycott the Games in a concerted effort. The former is logistically impossible and the chances of the latter happening are infinitesimal.

Using the Olympics for political reasons, even benevolent political reasons, is always a dodgy prospect. The way to get Russia to change its course will not involve five rings. Possibly reaching the Sochi Games is openly gay American figure skater Johnny Weir, who has in the past expressed an affinity for any things Russian (he is married to a Russian man). New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, also openly gay, has said that should he make it to the Sochi Games, he will march in wearing a rainbow pin that he got from his visit to the London Games in 2012 which were far more gay friendly. These and other openly gay athletes have an opportunity to offer something to fly in the face of these Russian laws: defiance. At least hundreds of millions of people will be watching these games and if Russian authorities had the audacity to actually enforce these laws, it would be huge news that would shed an incredibly unflattering light on the discrimination happening there.

If I thought that America's absence from the Games would genuinely make a difference, then I would be humming a different tune. But as things are, I simply do not see that happening. It would be a shame to see the dreams and years-long hard work of so many athletes go up in smoke.

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