The 2014 Winter Olympics will be held in a country where it has become a crime to portray same-sex relations as equal in value to heterosexual ones. They will be held in a country where gay-rights advocates are routinely arrested, and gay and lesbian Russians have been beaten, raped and murdered.
ILGA Europe’s 2013 Review of LGBTI human rights placed Russia at the very last place among the 49 European countries it surveyed. The review identified gross violations of human rights in the country, citing numerous incidents of violent attacks against LGBTI Russians (and the failure of the police to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators of these hate crimes), restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly, and the denial of equal access to goods and services.
The escalation of violence and the passage in June of anti-gay legislation have made Russia an increasingly dangerous place for its LGBT citizens. The law bans “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations to minors,” but the definition of this “propaganda”, as set forth in Article 6.21 of the Russian Federation Administrative Code, is so broad, including, for example, information that makes same-sex relations “attractive” or of equal value to heterosexual (“traditional”) relations, that it essentially criminalizes any positive depiction of same-sex relations and identity.
This increasingly disturbing record of intolerance has triggered considerable discussion of what the response of the West should be in light of the upcoming Winter 2013 Olympic Games in Sochi.
In an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the members of the IOC, writer and broadcaster Stephen Fry called for the Games to be moved to another city.
In his letter Fry drew parallels between the violence against LGBT persons in Russia and the persecution of Jews in Nazi Germany at the time of the Berlin 1936 Olympics, and between recent anti-gay legislation and anti-Semitic laws that deprived Jews of their civil and professional rights in Germany (including, I should add, membership in German athletic teams).
Fry sees history repeating itself, not only in the increasing virulence, extent and frequency of attacks against LGBT persons and the passage of discriminatory legislation, but also in the stance he fears Western leaders will take (or fail to take) in the face of this terror.
In a tweet to Fry on Saturday, Cameron ruled out the idea of moving the Games, stating “we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Games,” without, however, saying precisely how he would do so. Gay athletes, including Olympic Gold medalist Greg Louganis, have also rejected the boycott. So have organizations working for LGBT equality in sports such as You Can Play and Athlete Ally. All claim that a boycott would hurt only the athletes and accomplish nothing.
US President Barack Obama has already stated his opposition to a boycott, and it is highly likely that other Western leaders will soon follow suit. The International Olympic Committee has also rejected the idea of moving the Olympics, though it continues to press Russia for “clarifications” with regard to the reassurances it has received from the Russian government that athletes and visitors to the Games will not be affected by the law.
Given the enormous technical and political difficulties that moving the Olympics at this late date would entail and the clear lack of political will for such an action—difficulties that Fry himself later acknowledged—a boycott is not going to happen, nor is it clear that a boycott would even be an effective response to the human rights violations happening in the Russian Federation today.
First, it is likely that moving the Games would only strengthen Putin’s support among Russian voters. As Neil Buckley notes in his piece for the FT, a Sochi boycott could be leveraged by the Kremlin as indication of the West’s efforts to undermine the country, a motif historically found in Russian nationalism and all the more resonant with the recent rise of radical nationalism in the country.
Just as importantly, the vast majority of Russians support the legislation. Recent (June 2013) polls conducted by the public opinion research agency VTsIOM indicate that 88% of Russians support the anti-gay bill. Four out of every ten Russian believe that “non-traditional sexuality” should be subject to imprisonment; another 15% believe penalties should be introduced and yet another 25% stated it should be subject to public condemnation.
A boycott would not help change things in Russia.
Ugly as they are, however, Russia’s recent anti-gay laws and the mounting attacks on LGBT persons throughout Russia are not comparable to the atrocities that were already being committed against Jews in the Germany of the Berlin Games and which would reach their abominable nadir in the systematic extermination of millions of Jews in the years to follow. Ugly as they are, they pale in comparison to the laws that exist in a score of other countries today in which same-sex sexual relations are punishable by life imprisonment (Sierra Leone), hard labor (Jamaica), whippings and incarceration (Malaysia) and death (Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Sudan).
I mention this because the Sochi Games are an opportunity for political leaders, corporate sponsors, athletes and the IOC—and all of us—to take a stance against the violations of the rights of LGBT persons not only in Russia but in scores of other countries in which such violations are commonplace.
I realize that hosting the Games is not the same as participating in them. The former gives the host country a powerful propaganda opportunity, a stage with hundreds of millions of viewers. But we should not be focusing our protest only on Russia. Can you imagine how swiftly the IOC would ban the delegation from any country that sought to make being a member of a religious minority, say, a crime punishable by death? But it has not banned Yemen or Nigeria from participating in the Games. We need to be asking why.
Although the Russian Federation today is not the Germany of 1936, there are parallels enough.
First of all, there was talk of a boycott, too, back then, and the likelihood of the threat materializing much greater than it is today. Despite Fry’s claim that “the Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil”, there was considerable discussion, both publicly and within the American Olympic Committee and the Amateur Athletic Union (which was responsible for deciding on American participation in the Games), about boycotting the Berlin Olympics and a resolution in the AAU to do so was only narrowly defeated, 58-56.
Of course, in the end, there was no official boycott of the Berlin Games. The Americans sent their delegation of athletes, as did 47 other countries. But what then happened at the Games sent a perhaps more powerful message than a boycott would have.
There were 13 Jewish medallists in the Berlin Olympics. African American athletes won 14 medals, including the four earned by the legendary Jesse Owens. Their victories had an immeasurable impact that extended far beyond the stadium, demonstrating in an unforgettable, visually powerful way the ludicrousness of Nazi tenets of “Aryan supremacy” and the racial hypocrisy of America itself. Owens’ four-medaled victory remains as one of the milestones in Olympic history. It was also, as one commentator pointed out, “a turning point in the collective consciousness of African Americans… and a springboard for a minority on its long path to social emancipation.”
Very few LGBT Olympic athletes, however, are out and thus lack the visibility that Owens and his team-mates had. They will win medals, but we will not know that these are victories of gay and lesbian athletes.
Some commentators are hoping for a highly visible gesture of collective solidarity by the athletes at the Games, the rainbow equivalent of John Carlos’ and Tommie Smith’s raised black-gloved fists in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics but on the scale of entire delegations: an entire team sporting rainbow armbands or bracelets, as Greg Louganis suggested, or holding handkerchiefs like little flags as they march in the opening ceremonies, as Frank Bruni proposed in the NY Times Opinion Pages. An intoxicating image indeed, but we should recall that Carlos and Smith were suspended from the Games for their action and that the Olympic charter, as David Bradish notes in his piece for the New Civil Rights Movement, specifically forbids any “demonstration of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda”, including the wearing of any form of “publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise… on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games.”
My own fantasy is somewhat different: the post-victory kiss of an openly LGBT athlete with his or her partner, surrounded by jubilant team-mates in an unforgettable display of solidarity, an image of LGBT identity that is precisely what the recent Russian law forbids: the depiction of same-sex relations as equal and attractive, broadcast to the television screens of hundreds of millions viewers throughout the world.
I’m not sure that this will happen, though Olympic hopeful and gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup says he will a wear a gay pride pin in Sochi if he competes. A wonderful gesture but taking a stance against bigotry and intolerance should not be the responsibility of one sole LGBT athlete at Sochi, but one we all must assume. But how?
Calls to boycott the Sochi Olympics in itself will not exert pressure on the Russian leadership to repeal this hateful law or change its stance of LGBT rights. At most, enforcement of Article 6.21 may be relaxed, like the meagre concessions that the Nazis made to defuse the threat of the American boycott (which included the admission of the half-Jewish fencer Helene Mayer to the German national team),
The Russian leadership has been reassuring the West that gay and lesbian athletes will be treated well in the country, in the same way that Nazi Germany sought to dispel concerns about the treatment of black and Jewish athletes during the Berlin Games. The police may be more vigilant in preventing or in prosecuting hate crimes against LGBT Russians the closer the date of the opening ceremonies, just as the Nazis ordered the cessation of all anti-Jewish actions for the duration of the Olympic Games.
The Sochi Games will be ideologically spruced up, cleared for the time being of the flotsam of neo-Nazi skinhead thugs and homophobic ranting of far-right politicians, much in the way that the ubiquitous signs saying “Jews not wanted” were taken down in the German capital in preparation for the Games. Openly gay athletes and visitors will be treated decently, as African American athletes in Berlin were. (In another ironic parallel, during the Berlin Olympics, the Gestapo was ordered not to arrest foreign visitors for violating Paragraph 175 of the Penal Code, which criminalized homosexual acts and the Nazis even reopened a number of gay bars).
An image of tolerance will be cultivated that bears no relation to the horrible reality of what it means to be gay in Russia today. A propaganda victory for the Kremlin, to which by virtue of the participation of our athletes in the Games will seem to legitimate. But not if we speak out.
We need to keep talking.
Talk of a boycott and other initiatives to protest what is happening in Russia will help because they will keep the plight of everyday LGBT Russians in the public eye—and hopefully as well the plight of their counterparts in Kenya, Yemen, Nigeria and elsewhere. We should continue to speak out—and lobby governments and pressure corporate sponsors to speak out—against the violations of human rights committee in these countries and particularly Russia given its prominence as host. We need to keep up the momentum of protest achieved in the last few weeks, all the way up to the Games.
We need to flood the discourse surrounding and leading up to the Games so that no one will be talking about anything other than the plight of LGBT citizens in the Russian Federation. We need to make this the big story of the Sochi Games.
Details on the Russian “anti-gay propaganda” law in Kes Grekov’s informative article for Policymic.
More on the debate surrounding the proposed American boycott of the Berlin Olympics in:
- “Only Nazi Games? Berlin 1936:The Olympic Games between Sports and Politics” from the Journal of the Research Group on Socialism and Democracy
- “The Movement to Boycott the Berlin Olympics of 1936” in the Holocaust Encyclopedia.
Information on Jewish Olympic Medalists in the Berlin Games in “The Nazi Games”, from the Jewish Virtual Library.
For an account of Berlin during the Olympic Games see David Clay Lodge’s masterful history of the city, Berlin: A Modern History.
An interesting aside: the only country to boycott the Games was Spain, whose recently elected Popular Front government decided to organize an alternative to the Berlin Olympics as a protest of the atrocities being committed in Nazi Germany. The People’s Olympiad, which was to be held in Barcelona and for which 22 nations with a contingent of 6,000 athletes had registered, was cancelled with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, just as the Games were about to begin.
Image: photograph of gay rights activist being detained by police, Russia 2013