Same Sex Discrimination in Russia – Will a Canadian Olympic Boycott Work


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The Russian sports minister’s confirming that the country’s law against non-traditional sexual relations will be extended to any and all athletes attending the 2014 Games in Sochi, has rightfully so, given rise to a fire storm of controversy.

Public displays of affection by gays, such as holding hands or displaying a rainbow flag, are now banned. Violators face steep fines and jail time; foreigners face similar penalties plus deportation. This can only be seen as part of a wider and all-encompassing repression of gay people in Russia and a desire to extend it throughout the international community through the IOC and the Winter Olympic Games.

Outrage has poured out from the gay/lesbian community. Critiques from within have expressed opinions ranging from calling for a complete boycott of the Olympic games to participating while creating opportunities to speak out about the rights of gays and lesbians and highlighting Russia’s repressive law. Shared humanity or society as a whole should also be incensed by this overt example of discrimination and oppression. This is not the first time that the Olympics have been used to legitimize and create propaganda to sway the international community away from a state’s regressive policies.

During the 1976 Montreal Olympics, 25 African nations boycotted the games in protest of New Zealand whose rugby team was touring apartheid South Africa at the time. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter ordered a boycott of the Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. This was followed by the Soviet led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics which included the majority of Warsaw Pact nations amongst others.

Nothing was solved by these politically rooted Olympic boycotts. The most notable attempted boycott of any Olympic Games occurred in 1936 when Nazi Germany was in the process of implementing its repressive and racist laws against Jews and Gypsies amongst others. In the face of growing demands for a boycott of the Berlin Games, Hitler had promised there would be no anti-Semitic demonstrations, and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, ordered all anti-Jewish signs removed from Berlin streets. History shows that the Nazi attempt to hide its racist and discriminatory policies and practices were only a charade.

A parallel may be drawn between an attempted boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games and the Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi. As Hitler promised that there would be no anti-Semitic demonstrations during the Olympics, the Russians are welcoming every participant with assurances that their rights will be respected.

It is understandable that many critics are singing the song called the Sochi boycott. But history has proven that boycotts have never worked.

Those who have suffered the most from Olympic boycotts have been the athletes. They spend countless years in training for that one final moment, only to be let down by not receiving the chance to compete to their maximum abilities. The greatest single victory during the 1936 Olympics was that of American black athlete Jesse Owens, who transcended Nazi racist ideology and policies of racism through his medals.

The International Olympic Committee has maintained relative silence except for receiving hollow assurances from Russia’s Olympic organizers, that the law would be suspended for the duration of the Games. One can only be reminded of Neville Chamberlain’s strategy of appeasement which accomplished nothing. Democratic and human rights minded countries are once more at the juncture of striking a blow to ideologies of bigotry, hatred and oppression.

With this in mind, it is crucial that these countries send a message to the host country through participation in the Olympic Games that the oppressive policies of Russia, are just that, in that they allow participation by only a select cross section of its athletes.

In contrast, countries such as Canada and the U.S., by opening competition to everyone within their athletic communities will have competitors who based on merit and training will be the best in their individual events. This will be the first step in overcoming bigotry and discrimination.

As the host country, Russia will undoubtedly have a large contingent of competitors. Boycott by other countries could possibly provide Russia with potentially greater opportunities to attain medals based on the disproportionate size of their team. Fewer countries competing could mean that Russia will have a better chance at winning, and therefore show that their policies of exclusion have merit.

Canada has already taken a lead whereby it’s Foreign Affairs Minister, John Baird has worked behind the scene to persuade Russia not to follow through with its controversial anti-gay law.

Bravo for Canada for once again taking a principled and righteous stand against bigotry, racism and discrimination. This issue is about the protection of human rights which supersede other issues including family values. These are truly Canadian values, and we should not stop there.

This next step should be protest through education. Many initiatives can be undertaken by the teams from each of the participating nations to educate Russians, as well as the world about Russia’s oppressive policies against gays and lesbians. In this era of electronic media, international broadcasters could also bring light to the issue of anti-gay Russian policies by devoting equal time during their broadcasts of the games to inform viewers of these policies.

Maybe this is the time for Canada’s broadcasters to step up to the plate and show their corporate responsibility to ensure human rights. By doing so, international condemnation and shame could be brought onto the Russian government, and onto the International Olympic Organizing Committee for their silence.

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