Let’s lead with the acknowledgement that the U.S., as a nation, will certainly not be boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Individual athletes, having trained their whole lives for this moment, are not going to either unless they have a commitment to this cause that can possibly overcome every other motivation in their lives, which is unlikely. It’s really, really hard to give up something that important to you. So writing about it is in large part an intellectual exercise, and one that I’m still working through. But I still think it’s important, especially given the fact that every piece I’ve seen has treated boycotting as silly. If I’m willing to consider handing the women’s hockey gold medal directly to Canada, it must be important.
The main problem with dismissing the idea of national boycott out of hand is it seems to be a comparison to last time we actually boycotted anything, the U.S./U.S.S.R. situation in 1980 and 1984. Although there were specific geopolitical actions each boycott was ostensibly addressing, really they were about being petulant Boycotting the very existence of another nation, especially one that has been around for a long time and is deeply invested in opposing your way of doing things, is never going to be effective. It accomplished nothing politically and led to a generation of athletes feeling royally screwed. A much better analogy is actually Berlin 1936. Who awarded that bid? Hitler’s government was both recently established and ostensibly popularly elected, as well as being wildly controversial (fun fact: the Nazis lost seats in the election right before Hitler was named chancellor). Now, as students of sports history know, the U.S. ended up going. Our minority athletes, most notably Jesse Owens, embarrassed Hitler’s regime and its theory of Aryan [sic] athletic superiority (fun fact #2: the word Aryan did not mean what Hitler thought it did). It’s also pretty ironic that anti-black racism now just works the opposite way, which shows that white supremacy is one tenacious ideology. But that particular victory defined pyhrric, as the 1936 Olympics also helped legitimize Hitler as leader of Germany, gave the Nazis a chance to show themselves and their ideas off on a world stage, and gave tacit international approval to the idea that we just had to accept the Nazi government as one among many and hope it went away at some point. This at the exact moment Hitler was violating every term of Versailles, building up a gigantic war machine, and stripping a large percentage of citizens of their basic human rights as a prelude to committing genocide.
I swear that “Respect,” by noted gay ’80s new-wave group Erasure just came up on my Rdio playlist. Transition! Now, there is not going to be a genocide against LGBT Russians. But not-so-fun fact number three: ‘homosexuals’ were sent to concentration camps in Nazi Germany. That is where we get the now-eclipsed pink triangle symbol for gay rights. The ability to send them and other groups there with little protest from the rest of the population did not happen immediately. It was part of a longstanding process of acclimation to the idea that these other people, neighbors and friends, people who had been decorated WWI veterans and served at every level of society, are not really German like us. It starts with legal change. Creating a legal framework in which LGBT people are seen as not worthy of basic human rights, including turning the tables by painting us as dangerous agitators who oppress the straight population, is exactly what creates the environment that allows for both individual anti-gay violence and also organized violent action. This is not something people can ignore and just go about their lives. It forces them to live in very real fear that they will be beaten or killed, and it can cause many legal difficulties in terms of access to partners and children.
The problems with a national boycott as a response have been well-elucidated: it punishes athletes rather than Putin and the Russian legislature. [Addition: just saw a photo of protesting Russian athletes; our presence would also help support them in their fight against these laws]. Putin has shown he doesn’t give a good goddamn what anyone thinks of him and enjoys annoying the United States in particular. Because of this, it is unclear what large-scale effect a U.S. boycott would have. We could instead take the Owens route of sending a delegation of gay and gay-friendly athletes to kick ass over there. I know that fan boycotts are already being organized, which will hit the Russians were it really hurts, in the wallet. Hosting the Olympics is a complete economic sink-hole, and is basically only worth it as a way to promote your nation’s tourism and hope that it has a long-term effect. However, precisely because the Olympics are a national showcase for the host, it is important that we formulate some kind of national-scale response. As I noted in my intro post, it is somewhat perplexing that we don’t do this more. There is a sense that the Olympics are a politics-free zone, where for a few weeks we can all come together and put conflict behind us. That is lovely thought, but it has led us to gloss over hosting the Olympics in, say, China. Tibetan activists spoke up, but otherwise we poured millions into the coffers of a nation in which basic freedom of speech and action is a dream, one that also happens to oppress its ethnic minorities. It is disappointing that gay rights seem to be getting louder shouts, and are not always clearly seen on a continuum with other types of human rights violation. We are about to hold the World Cup and the Olympics in a country with one of the highest income inequality coefficients in the world, which is desperately razing slums in advance of the events, and cutting social services to help pay for them. These, too, are worthy of sustained international protest and pressure. I realize this is a slippery slope, given that if we kept the Olympics out of every nation that committed human rights abuses, we would have no host nations left. Perhaps we could put a statute of limitations on, and then at least Canada, Costa Rica, Sweden, and Botswana would maybe qualify. I recognize also that there is worthiness in the ‘apolitical Olympics goal.’ But the specter of Berlin is real. It happened. We let it happen.
As far as I’m concerned, sustained international protest should include a very serious consideration of not showing up. The exclusion of South Africa from major sporting competition was a huge blow to the apartheid state. Showing that the U.S., in a formal, organized, and clear way, will not stand for state-sanctioned bigotry and violence is extremely important. We cannot legitimize this regime in the eyes of the rest of world, a large proportion of which is just as virulently anti-gay and would see it as tacit approval for their actions. A national boycott could make our point more strongly than any other type of action. That it’s not going to happen does not mitigate that fact.