Gay Rights

Should We Be Watching the Sochi Olympics?

We boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics. But we’ve just sent our athletes to Putin’s minefield. How can we support our teams AND voice our rage?

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If you support LGBT rights, or human rights in general, you’ve probably heard plenty about Vladimir Putin’s repressive anti-gay policies and the fascistic legislation banning “homosexual propaganda” he signed last July. The new law classifies almost any gay content or public support for gay rights as “pornography” and has been used to justify mounting violence against the nation’s LGBT citizens. It doesn’t stop there. Other new laws ban the adoption of Russian-born children to same-sex couples or those in countries where marriage-equality exists. Tourists and foreign nationals who are gay, suspected of being gay, or accused of being gay can now be arrested and detained for two weeks. This is not a harmless expression of Russian traditionalism and borscht-love. It’s a widespread campaign to criminalize homosexuality that capitalizes on deep-rooted bigotry and anti-Americanism in the Russian press. 

Given all this, should we even be participating in the Sochi Games? Progressive activists, Lady Gaga, and the freed members of Pussy Riot are among those who have been calling for a boycott. Cher refused an invitation to sing at Sochi, citing her many gay fans who “have kept me working and given me a livelihood.” At his Moscow concert in December, Elton John spoke out against the ban on “homosexual propaganda,” then published a letter condemning the law for legitimizing homophobia and providing cover to extremists. Harvey Fierstein was one of the first to make the obvious comparison to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. In his impassioned New York Times op-ed last July, he wrote, “In 1936 the world attended the Olympics in Germany. Few participants said a word about Hitler’s campaign against the Jews … There is a price for tolerating intolerance.”

The leaders of France, Germany, the U.S., the U.K., and several other nations are staying away from Sochi, but only a few, like German President Joachim Gauck, cite human rights as their reason. None has actually supported a boycott. Perhaps they felt it would seem churlish to snub the Russians again, after the 1980 Moscow Olympics—or at least until they herd their gays into work camps. In a gesture certain to win over LGBT people worldwide, Putin declared gay travelers safe in Sochi, “as long as they leave the children in peace.” Not that in the events leading up to the game, we’ve seen evidence of this.

So, rejecting the Sochi Games seems an obvious response, as instinctive as pushing back at a shove. But think of it: The Olympics. The torch relay, the flags, the dancing, the anthems of 88 nations. Three thousand athletes in peak condition exhibiting their mastery of near-impossible feats in a rare demonstration of global cooperation, aspiration, and goodwill. It sounds like Sydney Pride On Ice. Can we really not watch? Not even a little? How effective is a Sochi boycott anyway?

Boycotting the actual games is easy when they’re so expensive and geographically remote. Fewer Americans than usual are expected to attend: turned off by high travel prices, anti-gay rhetoric (the new law essentially forbids any public statement or display of support for gay rights), and a sense of danger. After two suicide bombings in December, Islamic rebel groups from Russia’s North Caucasus have explicitly threatened the Games, because, as one rebel leader named Doku Umarov described them, the games are “satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors.”

Snickering reports in the Western media suggest that Sochi promises travel stories for a lifetime: mass dog-killing in advance of the games, urine-dark tap water, hotel rooms missing doorknobs and light bulbs, if the hotels were finished being built at all. The scorching ticket prices—“into the thousands for hockey and skating,” according to CNN. With luck, travelers will encounter a pair of those celebrated tandem toilets—reprinted and retweeted so often because they seem to crystallize the otherness of Russia for an American audience. Phones and computers may be hacked “almost immediately,” as NBC journalist Richard Engel experienced. “The State Department warns that travelers should have no expectation of privacy,” reported Engel, “even in their hotel rooms.”

Needless to say, if you do travel to Sochi, share your itinerary with friends at home, record vital phone numbers somewhere other than your fragile, hackable, easy-to-steal cell phone, and consider registering at the newly opened Sochi office of the U.S. Embassy. Gay and lonely? Lump it. “There are no gay people in Sochi,” says its mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov.

Boycotting coverage of the Olympics is of course a more complicated decision. It means denying ourselves an easy pleasure, denying our support to elite athletes and to the Olympic enterprise, and exempting ourselves from a source of tremendous collective uplift in America, one of those few, rapturous moments when we sense the whole hive vibrating at once. Those who feel ambivalent can frame the boycott as a moral dilemma, a choice between relative goods. We want to protest Russia’s anti-gay stance but support the athletes; we want to show solidarity with oppressed Russian minorities but not waste political muscle on a futile gesture.

Boycott is a powerful tool, especially in the age of social media. Whether a refusal to watch these winter games can hit our Olympic hosts in the wallet is another question. Russia has lavished $51 billion on the Sochi Games, pushing China’s $40 billion for the 2008 Summer Olympics into the silver medal category and making London’s outlay of $14.5 billion in 2012 seem like the dress budget of the littlest Duggar. Like many Olympics, Sochi seems likely not to turn a profit, except in national pride. About 70 percent of ticket buyers thus far have been Russian.

NBC paid $775 million to cover the Sochi Games, and Adweek estimates they will more than recoup their investment, selling around $1.05 billion in ads. Most of this money is spent and can’t be unspent. Corporations pay as much as $100 million to become major Olympic sponsors, then three to four times more to launch new products and advertising campaigns over the four-year Olympic cycle. The return on that investment is not always clear, but one sports marketing consultant told CNN Money that publicity damage from controversies surrounding the Games tends to sputter out quickly: “Once the flame gets lit, the focus shifts to the athletes and the competition.”

Boycotting corporate sponsors of Sochi could dent their revenue, but it’s not likely to hurt or affect Russia. Coca-Cola, a major Sochi sponsor, has a great record in workplace diversity and has been honored eight years in a row by the Human Rights Campaign for its fairness to LGBT employees. Are they a worthy target? After steady pressure from groups like All Out, Olympic sponsor AT&T has condemned Russian anti-gay laws, and there are hopes that Coca-Cola and McDonald’s will follow suit.

Like others, especially in the sports world, Olympic diving legend Greg Louganis has argued that a boycott only hurts the athletes. Instead, winning athletes should openly thank their gay colleagues and friends from the podium (as two-time Olympian Nick Symmonds did at a Russian sporting event last summer). More recently, in an opinion essay on the eve of the Sochi Olympics, Louganis remarked that “the best response to the mounting repression in Russia is engagement.” But he also advised that Americans exercise “some humility and a sense of history,” since our own social advances are so recent. At the height of his sports career, most of Louganis’s teammates refused to room with him. Since then, “minds have opened, laws have changed. In October, my soul mate Johnny Chaillot became my husband … Here’s another sign of progress: Of the nine people in the U.S. delegation to Sochi, three are openly gay or lesbian.”

Of course, boycotts don’t need an economic aim or result. We can boycott to rouse the rabble, to piss off the powers that be. As an expression of free speech, even a soggy semi-boycott that no one notices can be the right thing to do. In a miniature version of the Olympic controversy, Bill de Blasio has said he will boycott New York’s St. Patrick’s Day parade over the ban on gay-pride signs. Someone buy that man a green beer.

Russian organizers expect three billion viewers to watch this morning’s Opening Ceremonies at Sochi. The HRC proposes to tune in, as well, so that it can “publicly track every minute to show how NBC is covering this human rights crisis.” There’s one inventive non-boycott protest to the Games. Another is to atone for the pleasure of watching by donating to the Russian Freedom Fund, Amnesty International, or another human rights organization—ten bucks, say, for every hour of speed-skating or slalom. Some gay bars around the country have organized guilt-free viewing parties for opening ceremony night, with $1 donations for each drink ordered. Another effective, ethical course for the armchair activist is to make the Sochi Games a 17-day protest: Once a day, write a letter, call a radio station, read dispatches from Russian activists, buy books or music by living gay Russians.

The fiercest among us are probably not reading this. They’re picketing meetings of the International Olympic Committee. They’re writing phone numbers on their forearms so they can call from jail.

That leaves the rest of us, who can begin by recognizing that we touch others and influence events whether we act or not. The Sochi Games are a chance to examine your conscience. Then boycott or not, guilt-free.

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