Why the United States Should Boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics

The following was part of my midterm for the latest class I’ve been taking at NYU (yes, I am voluntarily in summer school).  We had to write an op-ed piece.  This got high praise from my professor, and I’m pretty proud of it.  I promise that the next time I return from a months-long absence in writing, it will be with something less serious.

The ongoing government-sanctioned abuses and discrimination of homosexuals in Russia demand a strong international response.  To that end, the United States should lead a boycott of the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.  A boycott would be a public, wide-reaching, and impactful way to demonstrate that these repressive policies adopted by the Russian government are unacceptable to the global community.

This summer, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a federal law forbidding any “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors.”  Legal analysts and gay rights activists describe the law as intentionally vague.  By this new definition, “propaganda” could be something as overt as a gay pride march or as innocuous as a same-sex couple holding hands as they walked down the street.

Gays and lesbians in Russia are already denied the rights enjoyed by gays and lesbians in some other Western nations.  Russia does not grant legal recognition to any committed gay or lesbian couple, nor does it allow them to adopt children.  This new propaganda law elevates the disenfranchisement of LGBT Russians from denying their rights to forbidding any public discussion of the matter.

The open discrimination of Russia’s LGBT citizens by the government has been matched by open violence against Russia’s LGBT citizens in the streets.  Rallies in support of LGBT rights have dispersed into chaos, with anti-gay counter-protestors hurling eggs and rocks at those calling for equality.  Some instances have been more severe.  LGBT advocates leading these demonstrations have been assaulted and beaten, both by their ideological adversaries and by Russian police.

Most alarmingly, this violence has not been limited to these public gatherings.  Young gay men in Russia are being targeted by bigots via the Internet, who lure them into meetings where they are humiliated and harmed.  Some of these encounters have been videotaped and distributed online.  There have been lethal consequences.  The Spectrum Human Rights Alliance reports that some of the victims have since killed themselves, unable to face the trauma of their torment or the shame of being so crudely outed to friends and family.

Mr. Putin’s government has created a culture in which the physical and psychological abuse of its LGBT citizens is tacitly approved, if not outright encouraged.  Seemingly unsatisfied with diminishing people in his own nation, Mr. Putin has now widened the scope of his bigotry.

The propaganda law includes a provision for how to deal with foreigners found to be in violation of its statutes.  In addition to facing monetary fines, gay or “pro-gay” visitors to Russia may now be detained for “up to fourteen days before facing expulsion from the country.”

With thirty-eight nations already committed to participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics, Russia will see a tremendous influx of foreign visitors next year.  Any of those visitors, whether they are athletes or spectators or journalists, whether they are homosexuals or not, will be subject to the propaganda law.  The International Olympic Committee, the body that organizes the Olympic Games, stated that it had received assurances from the Russian government that LGBT athletes would be free from prosecution during the games.  That statement was swiftly countered by Russia’s Minister of Sport, Vitaly Mutko.

“No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi,” Mr. Mutko said, “But if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable.”

In other words, a gay athlete is free to compete for a gold medal; but if he thanks his boyfriend for his love and support in a televised interview, he would likely be arrested.

To protest these draconian laws and this environment of hate, the United States should boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics.  Participation in these Games would be an insult to the LGBT citizens of Russia, to LGBT people worldwide, and to the peaceful spirit of the Olympics themselves.

The history of the modern Olympic Games is filled with boycotts.  Most were political posturing between rivals.  Countries have been uninvited from the Olympics over political grudges.  Host cities have even had that honor rescinded because of their political allegiances.

Only once in the history of the modern Olympic Games has action been taken in response to a humanitarian crisis.  In 1964, the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from all future Olympic competition due to its refusal to correct the injustices of apartheid.  The ban lasted twenty-one years, and was only lifted when the South African government had demonstrated that it was making substantial progress in treating its citizens equally regardless of race.

The legal discrimination of citizens based on their sexuality is as abhorrent as the legal discrimination of citizens based on their race.  Those who would argue that one offense outweighs the other fail to understand that civil rights are human rights, and that we are all human.

A boycott of the Sochi Olympics would raise awareness not only of the plight of LGBT people in Russia, but of LGBT people around the world.  Of the thirty-eight nations already committed to participating, only eleven grant full marriage equality to their homosexual citizens, and only nine grant those people full adoption privileges.  If the Sochi Olympics are boycotted on the grounds of homosexual discrimination, Russia will not be the only nation to have its gay rights policies reexamined with greater scrutiny.

The United States would benefit from leading a boycott.  Our nation has been working to regain the moral authority we were believed to have possessed in decades past.  An Olympic boycott would be the right opportunity to reaffirm the founding principles of our nation to a global audience: personal liberty, freedom from government tyranny, and the opportunity to succeed without the hindrance of discrimination.

A boycott would also have the effect of stimulating further discussion of our own ongoing struggle with LGBT rights.  Only thirteen of our fifty states currently offer citizens marriage equality.  While the Supreme Court decision that repealed the Defense of Marriage Act was a victory for the American LGBT community, the logistics of distributing the federal benefits now guaranteed to LGBT Americans remain to be clarified.  There are also the continued instances of the bullying and resultant suicides of America’s LGBT youth.  A boycott would remind us of the work that remains to be done here at home.

There are some who disagree with the calls for a boycott.  Openly gay Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup said he intends to compete in Sochi.  He is among those who believe there is more power in presence than absence.  People who share Mr. Skjellerup’s opinion no doubt hope to see an openly gay athlete on the winner’s podium in Sochi.  While the possibility of a gay parallel to Jesse Owens’s success as a black athlete in Hitler’s ethnocentric Germany is an alluring prospect for the cause, refusing to accept the invitation of a nation that institutionalizes such bigotry is a far stronger statement.

Other arguments against a boycott barely pass muster.  Openly gay Olympic figure skater Johnny Weir has discouraged a boycott because it would deprive the athletes of “possibly having their lone life-changing moment” of Olympic glory.  He has also given shockingly reductive advice to any LGBT athletes planning to attend: “If you don’t call attention to yourself, attention won’t come to you.”  This is particularly ironic coming from someone who has appeared in more reality television programs than Olympics, where he has never finished higher than fifth place.  Mr. Weir’s are the weakest of arguments against a boycott, steeped in vanity and unbecoming of an athlete meant to represent America to world.

Russia pursued the hosting privilege for the 2014 Winter Olympics to demonstrate to the world that it is a twenty-first century nation, a first-world power with bountiful resources, modern infrastructure, and an open outlook on the world.  However, Mr. Putin’s escalating persecution of his LGBT citizens shows the true face of Russia: blustering, bigoted, and receding towards the totalitarianism of its past.  A boycott of the Sochi Olympics is America’s only recourse, lest we associate ourselves with Mr. Putin’s policies by willfully participating in the games.  There is nothing less than this at stake.  Sending athletes to Sochi would signal to Russia and to the world that we choose to ignore the abundant evidence of these ongoing human rights abuses.  Attendance is equivalent to complicity, and no American should tolerate that.

~ T

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