Sochi vs. Vancouver: Why This Olympic Experience Will Be Very Different

Even if Putin himself signs a decree stating that no LGBT persons will be subjected to Russia's draconian laws and that their safety will be guaranteed, boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi or pulling out completely is still the right thing to do.
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During the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, Canada, I had the great privilege of participating in a once-in-a-lifetime event called Home on Howe, where, for 17 days straight, I lived in a retail store located in the epicenter of the action. Urban Barn, the company I worked for at the time, knew that it would not be business as usual during the games, so they devised a plan to maximize our exposure and raise money for the Canadian Paralympics. We turned the store into a "home" for me, replete with big-screen TVs running the events as they happened, video cameras monitoring and streaming my every move, a Mac center for visitors to check emails or update their Facebook page, and a Wii entertainment area where I played too many hours of Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games to count.

The deal was that if I could last the full 17 days without leaving the store, my company would match all donations up to $25,000 made by our generous customers and other corporate donors. The first nine days were awesome. The last eight were pure torture.

I had all the comforts I could reasonably expect, but I had no privacy. The store was open to all visitors: the curious, the crazed, and those needing a respite from the delirious chaos of Vancouver's downtown core. I played innkeeper to a multitude of amazing people from all over the world, hosted the best hockey-game-watching events in the city, partied too many nights into the morning's wee hours and slowly went stir-crazy. My morning coffees were provided by our neighborhood Starbucks, my meals were catered by Choices Market, a shower was built in the washroom (for obvious reasons), and endless amounts of alcohol was readily available, if needed. (Trust me: It was needed.) I had framed pictures of Chubby Lady (my cat) and Jason (my husband) throughout the store for when I needed a glimpse of my real life, and nobody asked any questions.

As the games wound down and my days in confinement began to dwindle, talk naturally turned to four years down the road. The 2014 Winter Olympic Games would be held in western Russia, on the shores of the Black Sea in the city of Sochi, and we marveled at the prospect. "We have to do this again in 2014!" we would joke. "Imagine how much fun we would have!" It was not going to happen, of course, but the possibility existed.

Not anymore.

On June 30, 2013, eight months ahead of the XXII Olympic Winter Games, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a bill that bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." The bill allows for hefty fines to be levied against anyone "providing information about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered communities to minors or holding gay pride rallies." Its intention is to promote "traditional Russian values over Western Liberalism." (Both Brian Brown and Michele Bachmann were seen attempting cartwheels.)

Upon further dissection it has been uncovered that the new law contains a provision that allows the government to arrest and detain gay (or "pro-gay") foreigners for up to 15 days before they are expelled from the country. This loosely means that any visitor to Russia who uses gay-affirming speech or displays a rainbow flag, or any same-sex couple that hold hands, amongst a myriad of other no-nos, can be thrown in jail and then forcibly removed from the country. It also means that our fanciful dream of "Home on Kirortny Prospekt" (Sochi's main drag) has been given the kibosh by Russia's anti-gay, anti-human-rights, neoconservative government.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved swiftly to quell any fears, releasing a statement that read, "The IOC would like to reiterate our long commitment to non-discrimination against those taking part in the Olympic Games, the IOC is an open organization and athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games." Well, whoop-de-doo! This is simply not good enough.

Where is the response from the Canadian government? There is none. Silence. Where is the response from the U.S. government? Where are the words of condemnation from that nation's first "gay" president, Barack Obama, over this blatantly discriminatory nonsense? There is none. Silence. Where is the outrage from the governments of civilized nations that vow to protect their citizens from human rights abuses? There is none. Silence. This is simply not good enough.

Thankfully, the people, and Human Rights Watch (HRW), a leading international organization whose mandate is "protecting the human rights of people around the world," are getting involved. HRW issued a letter to the IOC that chastises them for their inaction over this issue, and in most Western nations online petitions calling for the boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics are gathering steam.

Look, I think we can all agree that this boils down to just one thing: money. The Olympics are big business, and the prospect of the IOC yanking the games from Sochi are slim to none, but that does not mean that doing so is not the right thing to do. Human rights are nonnegotiable. Even if Putin himself signs a decree stating that no LGBT persons will be subjected to these draconian laws and that their safety will be guaranteed, boycotting or pulling out completely is still the right thing to do.

I have an idea. Right next door to Russia, there is a big country with an inclusive democracy where gay people have been able to marry since 2005, and whose charter of rights guarantees their protection and freedom, and that country recently hosted a very successful Winter Olympic Games. We have venues ready to go and volunteers standing by. Let's give the games back to Canada! Doing so will send a message to the entire world that discrimination is wrong and that basic human rights matter.

I think I have another 17 days in me.

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