It's Time to Reconsider the Sochi Olympics

Online commenters' shock and outrage mingled with genuine confusion as to how Russia could be so backward at a moment when the rest of the world -- and particularly the U.S. -- was making strides on gay rights.
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Outrage at Russia's new law against homosexual propaganda has coalesced around a campaign to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics, underscoring the complexities of navigating human rights activism and high-stakes international sporting events.

The so-called "anti-gay propaganda" law, which passed in June, criminalizes the distribution of information to minors that suggests that homosexual and heterosexual relationships are equal, but its vague wording suggests that it might be enforced in a variety of situations. The issue gained a huge audience when in late July, a post at the popular site Buzzfeed, "36 Photos from Russia That Everyone Needs to See," featuring pictures of Russian gay pride participants being violently attacked in 2012 and 2013, went viral with more than 3.5 million views. Online commenters' shock and outrage mingled with genuine confusion as to how Russia could be so backward at a moment when the rest of the world -- and particularly the U.S. -- was making strides on gay rights.

In response, popular sex advice columnist Dan Savage called for a boycott of Russian vodka, and in particular Stolichnaya. (Stoli CEO Val Mendeleev says Stoli is not a Russian company and is in litigation with the government over use of the name.) Online petitions to the White House demanded that the U.S. add law authors Elena Mizulina and Vitaly Milonov to the Magnitsky visa-ban list.

But by far, the most attention-grabbing campaign has been the call to boycott the Sochi Olympics in response to the anti-gay laws. Some activists have called for the Olympics to be revoked from Russia and awarded to another country with facilities already in place. Meanwhile, some gay athletes, like Russophile figure-skater Johnny Weir, insist that a gay presence at the event would do more for LGBT rights there than its absence.

While a lot of good intentions clearly underlie this campaign, it is disturbing that many of the calls for a boycott and coverage of the controversy emphasize that foreigners might be detained and deported. This approach insinuates that the main concern is the safety of foreigners abroad, who, at worst, would be sent back to their home countries. In fact, the real issue is the lives of LGBT citizens of Russia, who live in an increasingly hostile environment, in which their human rights are violated on a continuous basis. Those violations will sadly continue long after the tourists have vacated Sochi's glittering monuments to sport and embezzlement.

On July 31, the International Olympic Committee responded to concerns over athletes' safety, stating that it had "received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games." Vitaly Mutko, Minster of Sports, promptly countered that the law would indeed be enforced and that all athletes and spectators would need to respect Russia's laws. Ironically, the IOC seemed to be counting on the selective enforcement of the legislation, despite the fact that selective enforcement has been a critical issue in the Russian judicial system for years and is widely recognized as a major obstacle to rule of law. This strategy is at best poorly conceived and at worst indicates to Russia that the international community does not take seriously the primacy of rule of law.

The boycott has highlighted that the prestige of the Olympics and similar events like the World Cup increasingly come at the price of human rights. A similar gay-rights issue has already arisen regarding Qatar's award of the 2022 World Cup. Homosexuality is illegal in the Gulf state, but FIFA head Sepp Blatter blithely sidestepped criticism by saying that the first Middle Eastern World Cup signaled an "opening of culture," for which the West must accept different moral and ethical norms (like treating LGBT persons as criminals). It was similarly thought that the 2008 Beijing Olympics would positively impact the country's human rights record, yet precisely the opposite occurred. As the geo-political balance continues to shift, the global community will need to reconcile the contradiction of hosting ostensibly non-political, high-profile sporting events in countries that systematically violate international human rights norms.

Although the call for a boycott is unlikely to succeed, the games have provided a hook around which to organize criticism of the anti-gay laws. Oleg Jelezniakov, a gay Russian activist in New York, is pragmatic about the campaign's impact: "I doubt the Olympics will suffer as a result of the boycott campaign, but even so, the awareness it's raising is a great asset to the cause. [The LGBT movement] is much bigger than sexual orientation. It's about human rights."

Raising awareness now is essential, because bringing human rights into the conversation about Sochi must be done long before the event if it is to be done at all. NBC, which owns the broadcast rights to the Olympics, has already flatly rejected requests to include the law in its coverage of the games.

This post originally appeared at The Interpreter.

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