President Obama stated at last week’s news conference that the United States will not boycott the Sochi Olympics and I support his position based on history. The last time we boycotted an Olympics the only people who got hurt were the athletes. That boycott of the Moscow games in 1980 was an unsuccessful effort by President Jimmy Carter to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. (Funny how the world changes and we are there now.) It had no impact on the Soviet Union, but those young athletes never got back that chance to compete and many lost their lifetime dream.
There are other ways to have an impact on the Russian government and bring the world’s attention to its brutal treatment of the LGBT community and we must explore all of them. The first must be an all-out push to get the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to pull the games from Sochi and move them to another venue. This may be hard to do considering they didn’t even take them out of Berlin in 1936. The IOC says it is committed to keeping politics out of the Olympic movement even though rational thought has many of us recognizing that is a near impossibility in today’s world.
According to the Olympic Charter the IOC includes the following mission statements: (1) encourage and support the promotion of ethics in sport as well as education of youth through sport and to dedicate its efforts to ensuring that, in sport, the spirit of fair play prevails and violence is banned; (2) to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement; and to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athlete.
In light of this, it was encouraging to see the report in BuzzFeed that “the IOC responding to calls from activists to secure written guarantees that LGBT athletes and visitors to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, will be safe, the International Olympic Committee said Friday that it is seeking further ‘clarification’ from Russian officials.”
Should the games remain in Sochi it would be great as President Obama suggested if a gay athlete became the hero of these Olympics. Diver Greg Louganis was that hero in 1984 and 1988. Larry Schwartz reminded us that Jesse Owens was the hero of the 1936 games in Berlin when he wrote about Owens on ESPN.com saying, “When Owens finished competing, the African-American son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves had single-handedly crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. He gave four virtuoso performances, winning gold medals in the 100- and 200- meter dashes, the long jump and on America’s 4×100 relay team. Score it: Owens 4, Hitler 0.”
The movement to boycott Russian vodka will have little impact on the Russian government and many have noted that the makers of Stoli have been generous contributors to LGBT organizations in the United States.
What may have more impact is calling for an international boycott of tourism to Russia. Focusing on tour operators and asking cruise ships to stop making stops in St. Petersburg or other Russian ports.
We need to focus on NBC, which will be broadcasting the games. NBC needs to be convinced to curtail all the usual hype of the sites and the country the games are in and only focus on the athletes themselves and the competition. If you take away the public relations bonanza that the Russians are hoping to get from staging the games, it could have a dramatic impact on the government as that will hit them in the pocketbook. There have been suggestions that NBC use openly gay commentators like Rachel Maddow and Louganis during the broadcast. Some have suggested asking athletes to wear a patch on their uniforms supporting diversity. We can never forget the civil rights statement made by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos in 1968 and supported by Australian Peter Norman who wore the Olympic Project for Human Rights patch as they stood on the podium to accept their medals.
The harsh treatment by the Russian government of their LGBT citizens must be stopped. We must find a way for the international community to take joint action and say they will not stand by silently when governments discriminate against their own citizens and pass laws that encourage the kind of brutality we are seeing in Russia.