Throughout the summer I heard a lot of discussion on the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Few of those discussions however, had anything to do with the games or athletes themselves. What seemed to be the core of the conversation was whether or not to boycott the games, and it’s not hard to understand why. Unless you’ve been distracted by the Snowden fiasco, the only media attention Russia has received in the past few months has been attached to recent laws prohibiting the spread of information on homosexuality to those under the age of 18. In our proudly pluralistic society, singling out a certain lifestyle as immoral is without a doubt unacceptable (and rightly so.)
That being said, I won’t be participating in the Olympic boycott. I agree with the sentiment of the movement, but no matter how noble a kneejerk reaction is, it’s still ineffective at best. If you feel so passionately about international gay rights that you can’t comfortably watch a televised sporting event taking place in a country whose head of state is a homophobe, then by all means skip the games, but don’t call it a boycott. Unless you were planning on travelling to Russia or at the very least subscribing to a Russian sports network, the only monetary loss during the three weeks will be for CTV. It’s also important to note that Stephen Harper’s views on marriage equality aren’t that far off from Vladamir Putin’s, so moving the Olympics to Vancouver as some people have called for won’t make a huge difference. Others have expressed concern for the safety of gay athletes. I agree that Sochi’s population contains a number of homophobes, racists, and misogynists, who may have a problem with any number of our athletes, but to be fair these kinds of people can also be found in London, Vancouver, Beijing, Turin, Athens, and any number of former Olympic hosts. On top of that I have yet to meet anybody willing to pick a fight with a world-class athlete, regardless of sexual orientation.
A personal boycott on the Winter Olympics is unlikely to make an impact, but a national boycott will likely do more harm than good. The boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow was observed by 65 countries, including Canada, to show disapproval of the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Despite the mass protest, the USSR continued the invasion until 1989. The USSR and their allies responded to the 1980 boycott by staging their own boycott of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, which they claimed was in protest of the anti-Soviet, anti-socialist sentiment in the United States. Once again, this had little effect on the United States’ policies (Red Dawn, a strongly anti-communist film depicting a Soviet invasion of the U.S. was released during the Olympics.) The cost of withholding from the Olympic Games is felt most strongly by the would-be competing athletes. Some athletes miss out on the opportunity they’ve been training their whole lives for, while others are stuck with a gold medal that they may feel they did not earn. Another national boycott would only repeat history, leaving athletes empty-handed, regardless of their political views.
The 1936 Summer Olympics, which took place in Berlin, nearly saw a mass boycott after Germany announced the exclusion of blacks and Jews from the game. After lifting the ban, the games saw the highest international participation up to that point. The most often cited competitor of the 1936 Olympics is Jesse Owens, a black American runner who took home four chunks of Nazi gold. The four instances in which Owens stood on the top of the podium, in front of 100,000 people in the capital of fascism, is oft regarded as the staunchest middle finger to the Third Reich in history. A less referenced but still notable Olympian is Helene Mayer, Germany’s token half-Jewish athlete, who received a silver medal in women’s fencing. Some people have been hoping that Sochi 2014 will be the year of the gay Owens– a homosexual athlete who, through total victory, will show the host country and the rest of the world the error in their ways. What often goes unmentioned is the impact that people like Owens or Mayer actually made. After competing, Owens went home to America where he couldn’t eat at the same table as a white man, and Mayer was expelled from Germany. Meanwhile, fascism continued to rise in Europe, while anti-Semitism and racial segregation continued to be practiced around the world.
Historically, the Olympics have had no effect on international politics. When over 200 different countries come together, there are bound to be ideological differences. If you feel strongly about Russia’s national policy, that’s perfectly normal. There are venues to express your concern and there are places where you can make a difference, but for three weeks in February Sochi will not be among them. February 2014 will be the time for politicians and activists to step off the podium and let the Olympians have their moment.