Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Don’t boycott Sochi, use it

Participating in the 2014 Winter Olympics presents chances to more openly defy Russia’s anti-gay laws than refusing to compete. 

By Matthew Byrd

The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, rather than being an example of international cooperation and superior human athletic achievement, is quickly becoming an example of the bigotry, vileness, and violence that have plagued humanity since its inception, all represented in Russia’s brutal political crackdown on the LGBTA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and straight allies) community.

This past June, Russia’s main legislative body, the Duma (in a unanimous vote no less), passed a law, which criminalizes “propaganda for non-traditional sexual practices” in a forum where children might be “exposed” to it. The language in the law is broad enough to essentially ban not only gay rights activism, but also public acknowledgement of LGBTA peoples in anything but a negative light. Vladimir Putin, Russian President and shirtless aficionado, also signed a law banning gay adoptions of Russian children, not only for couples in Russia but also for unmarried people in countries with same-sex marriage laws.

In the wake of such a blatant attack on the civil rights of Russia’s LGBTA population, many have called for their respective nations to boycott the Olympics as an act of protest against this odious trend. British actor and gay activist Stephen Fry wrote a well-articulated letter to the British government calling for a boycott and here in the United States figures such as actress Tilda Swinton and RUSA LGBT, a Russian-American LGBTA group based in New York.

The calls for a boycott are not without merit. Olympic games almost always turn into a hyper-nationalistic bonanza for the host country, glorifying it through awe-inspiring opening ceremonies and the political grandstanding of people like Putin, given a stage to pontificate about Russia’s splendors to a world audience. It would be sickening for anybody who cares about LGBTA rights to watch world leaders and countries implicitly endorse a regime and country that treats its sexual minorities with such ruthless contempt.

However, when one examines the history behind Olympic boycotts, the effectiveness of this technique is called into question. The United States boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was so effective that the war only lasted a near-decade. The boycott of mostly African nations of the 1976 Montreal Olympics was a response to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to not bar New Zealand, a country whose rugby team had been touring Apartheid-era South Africa. This has been all but forgotten due to its complete lack of impact on intra-South African politics. And Spain’s boycott of the 1936 Olympics held in Nazi-era Berlin certainly did nothing to impede that country’s homicidal march towards war and genocide.

All of these boycotts and their overall failures demonstrate an important lesson; boycotting the Olympic games while being an admirable gesture, doesn’t have any real concrete policy implications in the short-run. Russia’s climate of homophobia (in a recent poll almost 75 percent of the country approves of the recent wave of anti-gay legislation) won’t be eradicated just because some countries decide not to show up at Sochi in February. If anything, it will probably only bolster Russia’s self-image of being a bulwark against Western domination on the international stage, perpetuated by the likes of Putin.

So, what should activists and concerned athletes and countries do concerning Sochi? Attend, excel, and annoy. The world media will descend on this Black Sea resort, providing pro-LGBTA activists with an opportunity to annoy Putin (always a worthwhile pursuit) with mass demonstrations and widespread civil disobedience, which will certainly receive highly scrutinized coverage, exposing the plight of Russia’s gay populace to the global public. LBGTA athletes and their straight allies will surely earn medals; use the (literal) platform to make a statement. Nobody remembers the Spanish boycott in Berlin, but everybody remembers African-American sprinter Jesse Owens’ four gold medals, embarrassing Hitler and delegitimizing the Nazi’s racial politics.

Think of Sochi as a giant microphone that the whole world can hear. Activists can either shout and scream like hell into it or let it go mute.

Matthew Byrd is a contributing writer for the Iowa Peace Network. Originally from Chicago, he is a History and English Major at the University of Iowa, the Non-Fiction Editor at Ink Lit Mag, the Freshman literary magazine at the University of Iowa, and writes for the Daily Iowan.

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