Since the nationwide “Don’t Say Gay” bill passed in June, you can be arrested in Russia for telling a minor that gay people exist, being part of a public LGBT assembly, or for “socially equating traditional and non-traditional sexual relationships.” The new laws are both wide-reaching and scarily vague, and serve to legitimize and institutionalize an existing national attitude towards gay people that positions them as, at best, second-class citizens and, at worst, subhuman (State Broadcasting Director Dmitri Kisilev recently appeared on Russia’s most popular news program saying that gay people’s hearts should be deemed unfit for transplants, to wild applause). Gay parents who can manage it are fleeing the country lest their children be taken away. LGBT teenagers are being abducted and abused by anti-gay extremists, with no reponse from authorities. The rules also apply to foreign tourists, as four Dutch filmmakers found out when they were recently detained and questioned by police.
Interesting timing, considering that Russia is in for a giant influx of foreign tourists in about six months, along with a searing dose of international spotlight. On August 1st, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told a state news agency that anyone advocating a “nontraditional sexual orientation” at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics will be “held accountable… Even if he’s a sportsman, when he comes to a country, he should respect its laws.” Legislator Vitaly Milonov told the BBC that the Russian government lacks the authority to suspend the laws even if they wanted to. A week later, Mutko, apparently training for the Strategic Backpedaling event, asked the law’s critics to “calm down” and assured everyone that as long as LGBT athletes and spectators keep quiet, everything will be fine, because Russia’s constitution guarantees “rights for the private life and privacy.”
But promising not to engage in an all-out witch hunt is not the same as actually guaranteeing anyone’s right to self-expression or an honest existence. And even if Olympic participans and visitors are totally safe, these laws will go on making life miserable for millions of Russian citizens long after the stadium is empty. Back in February, Kristen took the LGBT athletic community’s pulse regarding Sochi after a Russian judge pre-emptively banned the Olympic Village Pride House. Now that these laws have passed, the trepidation expressed by these out athletes is finally spreading to the rest of the world. What should we — as individuals, committees, and nations — do about Sochi? What can we do, and what have we done before? Here’s a breakdown of a few options that have been presented, along with how they’ve worked in the past.
Boycott the games entirely
Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein called for an all-out boycott in a recent New York Times op-ed, drawing a parallel to the 1936 Berlin games and saying that “there is a price for tolerating intolerance.” British comedian Stephen Fry echoed this in an open letter to the International Olympic Committee and British Prime Minister David Cameron:
“The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent against the barbaric, fascist law that Putin has pushed through the Duma… Let us realise that in fact, sport is cultural. It does not exist in a bubble outside society or politics… An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.”
The history of Olympic boycotts is long and various. Olympic historian David Wallechinsky considers the 1956 Melbourne Games to be the site of the first true boycotts, and they started out with a bang — seven different countries refused to participate for three different reasons. Subsequent withdrawals have followed in this spirit — they’ve been used to show dissatisfaction with host countries’ politics (as when Taiwan refused to participate in the 1976 Montreal Games when the Canadian government wouldn’t recognize them as part of the Republic of China), with the International Olympic Committee’s decisions (as when twenty-six African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Games after the IOC refused to ban New Zealand even though they had sent a rugby team to tour apartheid South Africa), and as a tit-for-tat (as when the Soviet Union boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games four years after the US stepped out of theirs). Spain even invented The People’s Olympiad in 1936 as a replacement for, and protest against, the Berlin games (although the Spanish Civil War broke out before they could go through with it).
The United States has boycotted only once, though we came close another time. In 1936, when Hitler was coming into power, there were intense discussions as to whether the US should stay out of the Berlin Games. In the end, Nazi sympathizers within the US Olympic Committee tipped the scales, and the US participated — a decision made, as Fierstein points out, to the retroactive regret of many. Forty-four years later, thanks to Jimmy Carter, the US convinced 62 other countries to join it in boycotting the 1980 Moscow Games, a decision now “universally reviled as Cold War posturing that accomplished nothing.” So it looks like we’re 0 for 2 in terms of boycott decisions.
Large-scale boycotts seem unlikely this year. President Obama told reporters Friday that, although “nobody’s more offended than me about some of the anti-gay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia,” the US will not boycott the Games, pointing out that there are many countries we disagree with that we “do work with” anyway. He spoke more about this on The Tonight Show earlier this week. British Prime Minister David Cameron followed suit on Saturday, tweeting that he shares Fry’s “deep concern” but believes “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend” the games. Many experts and athletes agree, arguing that if countries boycott, discussion of whether or not they’ve “overreacted” would overshadow any message they were attempting to send, and that the athletes, rather than the Russian government, would suffer in the end.
What’s the attitude on the ground from Russia’s LGBT community, however? Last week, 23 Russian LGBT activists spoke out in support of a boycott, but in a recent article on Gay Star News, Anastasia Smirnova, general project manager for the Russian LGBT Network, urges allies not to boycott:
“We believe calls for the spectators to boycott Sochi, for the Olympians to retreat from competition, and for governments, companies and national Olympic committees to withdraw from the event risk to transform the powerful potential of the Games in a less powerful gesture that would prevent the rest of the world from joining LGBT people, their families and allies in Russia in solidarity and taking a firm stance against the disgraceful human rights record in this country.”
Ban Russia from participating
Some advocate for a reverse approach, calling on the International Olympic Committee to ban Russia from competing in their own games. Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, argues that discrimination against any athletes directly contradicts the Olympic Charter:
“‘The practice of sport is a human right,’ the charter reads. ‘Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit’… That’s not just an isolated sentence in the midst of dozens of charter pages; it’s right up front, in the section called ‘Fundamental Principles of Olympism.’ …And the Russian law doesn’t just violate one word or one clause of the Olympic Charter; it violates the entire statement. The law doesn’t just punish Russian athletes; it subjects competitors from every nation to discrimination and flies in the face of the Olympic spirit.”
Zeigler argues that making Russia watch its own Games from the sidelines is the best way to ensure an impact that goes beyond one Olympics — both in Russia and internationally, as it will send a message to similarly homophobic countries that want to host major sporting events — and to involve the Russian populace (“instead of asking our athletes to carry messages that would fall on deaf Russian ears, it would drive Russian Olympic hopefuls to speak out to their own government”). He cites all sorts of past precedents to back himself up — South Africa was banned from competing from 1964 to 1992 because apartheid went against the Olympic spirit. Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Sydney Games because of human rights abuses of women; after a call for similar bans of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all three countries included women on their teams in 2012.
Although banning a country from their own Games is a more difficult endeavor, the IOC has pulled that off before, too — the 1920 Olympics were supposed to be held in Budapest, but because Hungary was a German ally during WWI, the IOC transferred them to Antwerp. George Takei and thousands of others have signed a petition asking the IOC to move the whole thing to Vancouver. However, judging by the IOC’s recent statements, which have consisted of “little beyond tardy and lukewarm criticism,” this seems vastly unlikely.
Let the media spread the word
If there’s going to be no official action, maybe we can at least count on Bob Costas. NBC paid $775 million for exclusive American broadcasting rights at the Sochi games. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin recently wrote to the company’s CEO, pointing out that when he bought this privilege, he also purchased:
“a unique opportunity — and responsibility — to expose this inhumane and unjust law to the millions of American viewers who will turn in to watch the games… it wouldn’t be right to air the opening ceremonies, which is an hours-long advertisement for the host country, without acknowledging that a whole segment of the Russian population — not to mention foreign athletes and visitors — can be jailed for an immutable aspect of their identity.”
An LGBT rights group called Truth Wins Out did Griffin one better and started a petition asking NBC to make Rachel Maddow a “Special Human Rights Correspondent” during the Games. The National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA) also released a statement asking NBC to “include LGBT athletes in your coverage, and put into context the personal challenge attending the Winter Olympic Games presents for them,” as well as offering their combined expertise, perspective, and assistance.
As of yet, NBC has failed to bite. Beyond promising their LGBT employees that they will do “everything possible to keep them safe” despite the laws, and making statements about how they “strongly support equal rights and the fair treatment of all people,” the broadcasting brass has been pretty vague about how they plan to deal with the human rights abuses occuring in the country they are, traditionally, supposed to be buttering up. NBC Sports Group chairman Mark Lazarus said that the laws will be addressed “if they impact any part of the Olympic Games.” This seems less like a promise to tackle the hard issues, and more like a plea to the Russian government to sweep anything under the rug that won’t look good over uplifting horn music, not unlike Sports Minister Mutko’s plea to the international media to “calm down.” A Media Matters report shows that, as of August 9th, NBC had devoted about 12 minutes of airtime to the upcoming Games, only 3% of which even mentioned the discriminatory legislation.
NBC’s track record at past games isn’t exactly gold either. They’ve held exclusive American broadcasting rights since 1996, and as scholar Cassandra Schwarz points out, “Olympic Games media coverage has become increasingly limited, allowing the IOC to have greater control over popular perceptions of the Games.” During the the 2000 Sydney Games, for example, “In hopes of downplaying Australia’s long and brutal history of racism towards Aboriginal peoples, the Olympics was promoted with an aim to package “Aboriginality” as a recognized and celebrated component of Australia’s “multiculturalism.” So rather than drawing international attention to humans rights abuses that were still occurring, the involvement of a marginalized people just helped legitimize the false and flattering image the Australian government wanted. (Obviously similar histories are swept under the rug every time the United States hosts the Olympics, regardless of television outlet.)
The IOC and major media outlets also came under fire during the 2008 Beijing Games for counting on the country to clean up its act before the games and for failing to address the degree to which it didn’t. Beijing itself was called out for silencing critics, giving only lip service to protesters, and blocking internet access. Russia is doing the same — reports by Human Rights Watch show that authorities have already “harassed and pursued criminal charges against journalists, apparently in retaliation for their legitimate reporting” on abuse of migrant workers, disappearing taxpayer money, and forcible eviction associated with the Games. Based on past experience, we can’t count on small news outlets to have the resources or clout necessary to properly chase these stories, and we can’t count on NBC to use its considerable influence to do it either.
When people talk about how the US dropped the ball in 1936, they often mention how there was hardly a contrary peep from US journalists, as they were taken in by Germany’s well-scrubbed facade. Let’s not let that happen again.
Organize official protests
In another New York Times editorial (the Gray Lady has good Olympic instincts), Frank Bruni imagined the US team staging a “not ostentatious,” “subtly recurring,” and “wordlessly mocking” rainbow flag parade during the opening ceremonies. He went so far as to suggest “something small stitched into the uniforms” to serve as a national visual statement.
Historian David Wallechinsky agrees that people should call the Russian government’s bluff, suggesting that athletes “smuggle banners into one of the stadiums” and asking “what are the Russian authorities going to do, arrest people right in the middle of the Olympics?” (And if they did, NBC would certainly have to report on it). Leading Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseyev is organizing a Sochi Pride March to coincide with the opening ceremony (his earlier efforts to open a Sochi Pride House were shut down by the authorities). Alekseyev hopes that a march “will be much more effective [than a boycott] to draw attention to official homophobia in Russia all around the world and expose the hypocrisy of the International Olympic Committee.”
But there’s a problem with this idea. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter expressly forbids “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda,” and since Russia’s law has overtly politicized LGBT identities, even an expression of solidarity now counts as a political demonstration. (This is why Tommie Smith and John Carlos were disqualified by the IOC following their iconic demonstration on the medal stand during the 1968 Mexico City Games.)
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, IOC President Jacques Rogge lifted the all-out ban and allowed athletes to speak freely in interviews, even on Olympic grounds (but not in certain locations, including on the podium). Pro-Tibet protesters were able to briefly disrupt torch-passing ceremonies and unfurl banners in public places, but all were quickly detained. Olympic athletes, fearing IOC rules, loss of sponsorship, and accusations of bad sportsmanship, seem to think about organizing group protests more often than they actually do it. The athletic humanitarian organization Team Darfur considered large-scale demonstrations at the Beijing Olympics, but after their founder, Joey Cheek, had his visa yanked by Chinese authorities, they chose a subtler form of protest instead by asking former Sudanese “Lost Boy” Lopez Lomong to carry the US flag during the opening ceremonies. The German national team thought about wearing orange terry-cloth robes in solidarity with Tibet during the Beijing Olympics, but then decided the issue was “too complicated” to take a stand about. It remains to be seen whether the IOC will lighten the restrictions again this year, but it’s possible, especially as they’ve made several statements condemning the laws. Regardless, an organized protest, especially by a large group of athletes, would be a powerful way to get this issue into the news.
Count on individual athletes to take a stand
When Obama announced that the US would not be boycotting the Games, he added that he’s “really looking forward to… some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes we’re seeing there.” Nikolai Alekseyev would like to go even further, hoping that “all the sportsmen wear rainbow pins and talk about the issues during the press conferences” (former US Olympic diver Greg Louganis agrees, suggesting “a visible pin, an armband, [or] a bracelet”). Some individual athletes, including New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, have already pledged to wear some kind of solidarity symbol and to “be themselves” throughout the games.
There aren’t many examples of individual athletes protesting at the Olympics (beyond the statements occasionally inherent in being themselves and being awesome). At the 1908 London games, Irish-American shot-putter Ralph Rose refused to dip his flag to King Edward the VII, who hadn’t yet recognized Irish independence, during the opening ceremonies. The most famous example comes from Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the American sprinters who took home gold and bronze at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and left the world with an indelibe image and no way to keep ignoring racial inequality in America. Smith and Carlos came to the podium “dressed to protest: wearing black socks and no shoes to symbolize African-American poverty, a black glove to express African-American strength and unity. (Smith also wore a scarf, and Carlos beads, in memory of lynching victims.) As the national anthem played and an international TV audience watched, each man bowed his head and raised a fist.” The silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, wore an Olympic Project for Human Rights badge in solidarity.
Although they were banished by the IOC afterwards for breaking rule 50, and “returned home to a wave of opprobrium,” Carlos regrets nothing. “To be heard is greater than a boycott,” he told reporter Dave Zirin this year when asked to give advice to LGBT and ally athletes at Sochi. “If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known.” The Olympics are a globe-sized megaphone, and people at all levels will get a chance to wield it—leaders of nations, heads of committees, CEOs, reporters, coaches, athletes, fans. The whole world watches the Olympics. Let’s find a way to make sure they listen, too.