The Winter Olympics start February 6. I love the Olympics, both the summer and winter games offer excitement and inspiration. I learn about new sports and see athletes perform feats I never dreamed possible. The games are beautiful and fun. They give us a space to see heroes and achievements from all walks of life and from all over the globe.
But as my friend Craig and I discussed on The Sports Ethicist Podcast a few weeks ago, the Olympics always seem to come with controversy. These Sochi Olympics are no different. There are many controversies surrounding these winter games: security concerns, preparation worries, cost overruns. One of the biggest controversies, though, is the increasing legal discrimination and persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia. In the run up to the games, Russia has signed into law many restrictions against homosexuals and homosexuality: including prohibitions on adoption and even on appearing ‘pro-gay.’ This prompted many to call for a boycott.
The boycott never materialized. While I vehemently disagree with the anti-gay legislation, I don’t think a boycott was the way to go. First, I am skeptical that boycotts in general are effective. In this case, I do not think that a boycott of the Sochi Games would have done anything to change the laws in Russia or make the situation for gays and lesbians better. Second, boycotts harm the athletes and spectators the most. A boycott wouldn’t affect Putin and his autocratic regime. But it would mean that men and women who have trained and worked their whole lives to get to the Olympics would miss out on potentially a once in a lifetime chance.
One response to this is that while the boycott wouldn’t be directly effective at changing the law, it would be important in terms of withdrawing our moral sanction of the rights-violating regime. By taking part in the Olympics, we give legitimacy to such a regime. The leaders of despotic regimes use this implicit acceptance to embolden and extend their power. By withdrawing from participation, we signal our refusal to take part of this charade of legitimacy.
I have strong sympathy for this view. It is a dangerous thing to give these regimes an air of acceptability. At the same time, I think it can be far more powerful to engage while expressing disagreement. For example, the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany was a situation where the moral legitimacy argument held a lot of sway. Hilter certainly was using the Berlin Olympics both to legitimize his power and to display the Nazi racial supremacist ideals. Many at the time called for a boycott, though it doesn’t seem to have been ever seriously considered by the US Olympic committee. As I mentioned in the podcast, I think Jesse Owens’ four gold medals in Berlin sent a more powerful and longer lasting symbol (both home and abroad) against Nazism and racism than any boycott would have. It is not too much of a stretch to draw a line from Owens to Jackie Robinson to Brown vs. Board of Education.
I think participating in the Olympics while expressing our concern and outrage at the anti-gay policies in Russia is the better strategy. It calls attention to the issue and forces Russian politicians to be on the defensive which often leads to the exposure of their hypocrisy and irrationality on this matter (as when the mayor of Sochi claimed there were no gays in Sochi). It allows openly gay athletes to compete (and win) which can help undermine homophobia. And many of the western nations are engaging in a protest of sort: several heads of state (including President Obama) are skipping out on the opening and closing ceremonies. This sends the signal of disapproval while not denying the athletes a chance at competing.
I, for one, look forward to seeing the USA Hockey Team standing on the medal platform wearing both Olympic Gold and rainbow ribbons.