An Olympic Tongue-Lashing

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Back in August, I wrote a blog post entitled Canada Must Boycott the 2014 Sochi Olympics. At the time, there seemed to be a general consensus amongst my virtual circles (i.e. the ones I interact with via Facebook and Twitter) that Russia’s anti-gay laws were morally repugnant and downright dangerous to Russia’s LGBT community and its allies, and that Russia in no way deserved to be given the Olympic Games and the prestige and economic benefits that went with it. There was even a petition, which I think I signed, to hold the Games in Vancouver once again, since we are already set up for it and clearly are a little more queer-friendly.

Oh those carefree summer days, when methinks we dost protest too much, and talked a pretty big talk in terms of “human rights” etc. etc. without really walking the walk. When it came down to it, we didn’t want our athletes to miss the games, I mean, they’d worked so hard, right? And we didn’t want to miss the opening ceremonies, because we wanted to tune in to see what countries made some kind of protest, right? And we’ll sure show those gay-bashing Russians when we win medals in a sporting event that has cost the country and its people more than 50 billion dollars, right?

Sigh. Okay. Obviously this post got off on a really bitchy foot. For those of you who never had any intention of boycotting the Olympics or any desire to see Canada pull its athletes, please disregard this entire post. This is not for you. I clearly feel differently from you, but at least you are being honest with yourself about which causes are important to you and which tactics you wish to use to defend these causes. Okay.

But there were a lot of us, back in the summer, who paid a LOT of lip service to standing in solidarity with Russia’s LGBT community (who are quite literally fighting for their lives, livelihood, families, and personal safety). There were a lot of us who said Russia was a disgrace, who said the IOC was a disgrace for allowing the Olympics to take place in a country whose laws appear to be in clear violation of the Olympic Charter, who said the Olympic sponsors were a disgrace for giving money to an event that, by its indifference to the prejudiced laws of the country hosting it, seems to tacitly endorse homophobia.

My ideas and anxieties seldom come from within myself, so I know I was inspired by the words of others when I wrote that impassioned post last August. My question is–where’d we all go? To sit in front of our TV screens to watch the Olympics, let the corporate sponsors pay the IOC to glorify Russia as it strips vulnerable citizens of their rights? I’m not sure, but I’m seeing a hell of a lot about gold medals in my news feeds nowadays, and a lot less about human rights. And that’s exactly what the IOC, and its sponsors, hoped would happen.

Cracked.com (an American website), has even gone so far as to post a self-congratulatory (but kind of sheepish) list of 4 Reasons We [the U.S.] Were Right Not to Boycott the Olympics (I found this link when one of my Canadian friends posted it on Facebook, so clearly the sentiment is shared north of the 49th parallel as well). By now I should know better than to be bothered by most of the things I read on the internet, but this particular post did tell me two things. Thing One: some of us are tired of feeling guilty (or being made to feel guilty) about enjoying the Olympics, and we wanted some internet-grade evidence to back up our position. Thing Two: the author of the post is obviously feeling the same pressures, or this post wouldn’t exist in the first place. As for these “reasons”:

  1. “It Gives Us a Chance to Beat the Bad Guys”   Maybe you have to be American to get this one, or maybe I just don’t equate winning medals in a corrupt and expensive show of TV patriotism with, you know, doing anything to actually help LGBT people whose lives are being destroyed by homophobic legislation. I’m not sure how we’re actually “beating the bad guys” unless you truly feel that a gold medal for Canada somehow makes Russia think twice about their position on LGBT people. Let’s be honest with ourselves: we like winning medals because we like to win medals. Even if Russia was the nicest most democratic human-rights-loving nation ever, we’d STILL want to beat their ass and win gold medals at the Olympics. We love watching our flag being raised to the rafters, and that has nothing to do with Russia’s laws.
  2. “It’s Not a Badass Statement; It’s a Boring Tradition”   Oh, I see. Standing up for what’s right and honourable is only something worth doing if it makes us look cool and “badass”, right? You mean this isn’t the first time people have wanted to boycott the Olympics? Oh no! I thought I was being really cutting edge here but obviously registering your displeasure with a corrupt institution and a homophobic government is passé, so I guess I’ll just shut up and wave my flag now with the rest of the cool kids.
  3. “There is Absolutely No Point”   This is actually a point the Russian LGBT Network agrees with, so I’ll let it stand in this particular case, though boycotts do have the potential to be useful in other ways (i.e., if they were directed at the IOC and its behaviour, rather than at the host nation). No, boycotting the Olympics never did make a country throw up their hands and go, “You know what? You’re right about that thing we’re doing that’s wrong, we’re not going to do it anymore,” but it might make corporate sponsors think twice about putting money into the Olympic machine if they know large swaths of consumers from the boycotting nations won’t be tuning in. With each successive boycott (or discussion about boycotting), the IOC is exposed more and more as the bloated, politicking, money hog it is. Maybe someday we will stop equating the Olympic Games with national pride and love of sport, and instead start simply tuning in the world championship events of the sports we’re interested in.
  4. “It’s Much More Effective to Be Passive-Aggressive”   Sadly, this is also true. When it comes to the Olympics passive-aggression is really the only option apart from boycotting, because any declared stance against Russia’s laws would be a “political message” (which the IOC doesn’t allow) and could get you penalized or barred from the Games. However, that doesn’t make this situation right. We shouldn’t have to play along and kowtow to de facto dictators like Putin just so our athletes can bobsled. If the Olympic Games truly were free of politics, any athlete who qualifies would be able to compete, regardless of their stated political beliefs, and regardless of whether or not they chose to make these beliefs known during the Games.

When it comes down to it, there is really only ONE reason why we, the countries of the world who believe homophobia is wrong, were right not to boycott the Olympics: the LGBT community of Russia didn’t want us to. They wanted us to come to Russia and see what’s going on. They wanted Vladimir Putin to have to make promises that gay athletes and fans would be safe during the Games. They wanted the world to speak up for them when they were there (though apart from some rainbow-y apparel that really hasn’t happened yet). They know that it’s going to get worse for them after the world leaves.

So it turns out I was wrong to want to boycott, and you’re not a horrible person for tuning in after all. We still, however, have a responsibility to put our money where our mouth is. According to the Russian LGBT Network:

Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent. We hope to join forces and succeed in raising everyone’s voices for LGBT equality in Russia and elsewhere. We hope that together with those who share this vision, we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up, proclaiming equality in most compelling ways.

I think it’s important to emphasize a couple of key points:

Participation and attendance of the Games in Sochi will not indicate endorsement of injustice and discrimination; they will only if they are silent.

we will succeed in sending the strongest message possible by involving athletes, diplomats, sponsors, and spectators to show up and speak up

Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of speaking up, at least not anything that has managed to reach me. It’s all gold medals and heart warming and/or tragic sports stories and the kind of stuff that makes the Olympics fun every time they come around, but the most negative press I’ve seen coming out of Russia are tweets from a bunch of whiny journalists who aren’t okay with hotel rooms that resemble the way most people in Russia probably actually live (okay, so the improperly installed toilet seat is a bit hilarious, but whenever I’ve travelled Europe I was lucky to find washrooms with any toilet seats at all).

Even if some people in Sochi are speaking up, it’s likely I wouldn’t know about it, since it seems the IOC is pretty good at controlling its message and getting the media who want to hold on to their Olympic broadcasting rights to play along (see the Globe and Mail’s piece about the CBC).

Basically, what I’m saying now that I’ve ranted and raved and flip flopped and bitched is that if you want to watch the Olympics, you should watch the Olympics. If you want to talk about gold medals, you should talk about gold medals. But don’t confuse success in a sporting event with success in the fight for a better world. Every sporting event does have its acts of human kindness and decency, every win is a triumph of someone’s hard work and determination, but at the end of it all I want Canada to take home more than just medals. I want Canada to take home the knowledge that they did the right thing and spoke up for people who were not able to speak up for themselves. And if we fail to do that, our medals just don’t mean a lot to me.

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Canada Must Boycott the 2014 Sochi Olympics

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I was pleased today to read that Star Trek actor George Takei has endorsed a petition to relocate the 2014 Winter Games to Vancouver, while lauded British actor Stephen Fry has written a heartfelt open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and the International Olympic Committee, urging them to boycott/ban the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. I know there are much more intelligent, much more celebrated, and much more influential voices than mine already speaking out about this, but I feel an obligation, as a human being with the political and financial freedom to express herself, to use the small platform this blog has given me to add my voice now and say, unequivocally, that Canada must not participate in the 2014 Sochi Olympics as long as Russia’s horrific violations against its LGBT citizens (and LGBT tourists, or anyone who supports equal rights for non-heterosexual people) continue in law and in practice.

As Fry so eloquently pointed out, the IOC had a choice in 1936–and they chose to move ahead with the Berlin Olympics, even as Adolf Hitler stripped Jewish citizens of their rights, refused to protect them from violence and humiliation, and declared Jewish people to be a threat to decency and to the country. When the world turned up to compete in 1936, it was, in effect, saying that it did not care what Germany did to its Jews. By allowing Adolf Hitler and his government the honour of hosting the Olympic Games (and it should be an honour), the world was giving Nazi Germany its tacit approval to do whatever it liked to its Jewish citizens–after all, the Games are “about sports”, not politics, right?

Wrong. Before the IOC grants a city (and a country) the privilege of hosting the Olympic Games, the bidding process is a highly political one (involving campaigning, lobbyists, etc.), and the advantages won by the host country (prestige, global publicity, tourism, economic stimulus associated with venue construction) are political advantages, benefiting whichever world leader is lucky enough to preside over them. It is unconscionable for a body like the IOC, whose charter states that “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”, to grant these political advantages to Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party.

And it is unconscionable for Canada to participate in an Olympic Games that grants these political advantages to Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party. Putin already has enough help from corruption, intimidation and political chicanery–he doesn’t need our endorsement. As Canadian athletes act as representatives for our country when they compete, I am making this plea to them:

Canadian Olympians–please, PLEASE do not represent me in Sochi. Do not let it be our hand patting Putin on the back.

When gay Russians can be brutally assaulted and tortured on video, with no steps taken by authorities to bring the attackers to justice, there is something wrong. When that videotape can be shared on the internet, and it is the victim that must fear for their job (because they’ve now been outed as gay), there is something wrong. How much more obvious does this need to be? When comparisons between Putin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany are not hyperbole but are, in fact, completely apt, this is a big red flag telling you that something is wrong.

I can no longer ignore the brutality already occurring and say that things aren’t really that bad. I can no longer believe that participating in the Sochi Olympics (even by watching them on TV) wouldn’t be the equivalent of lending my support to the 1936 Berlin Games. I cannot excuse this by saying “Well, we went to China and weren’t they just as bad?” (two, or rather three, human rights wrongs don’t make a right). I cannot pretend that “sport” occurs in some airy-fairy magical world that exists outside of politics and apart from the suffering these politics are inflicting on innocent people.

So here’s my voice–if we value human rights, not just human dignity but the right of a human being to simply exist in their country without fear they will be beaten to death while their government does nothing to protect them, we must boycott the Sochi Olympics. If the world made the wrong choice in Berlin in 1936, we have the chance to try to atone for it now. Unlike our predecessors, we no longer have the excuse of not knowing what horrors are possible when a minority group is stripped of their rights and made a scapegoat for their country’s ills. We all studied this infamous period of European history in school. We know what will happen if we are complicit, if we give these atrocities our seal of approval. History has taught us that “appeasement” of hate-mongering power-crazed dictators doesn’t work–we will not stave off political conflict, we will only appear to lack conviction.

If Canada is truly the great nation we say it is, we must stand behind our convictions. We must stand behind our principles of equality and safety for all, regardless of sexual orientation. We must hold the International Olympic Committee to the principles set out in its charter, and in keeping with that we must boycott the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi Russia. I honestly can’t see any other way.