Boycotts and the Sochi Olympics

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.




Filed under Olympics

34 responses to “Boycotts and the Sochi Olympics

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  4. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with John Carlos from the 68 Olympics talks about his decisions and all that led to them and what happened in the aftermath. I look forward to seeing the new champions of human rights emerge. I am excited that this issue is getting global attention and dialog.

  5. I’m glad to see that some are still reasonable around here. I had forgotten about the 1936 Olympics and you’ve used its example to greatly emphasize your point.

    Although, I don’t openly support the gay and lesbian community, I will support their cause as a human right of self-expression and individuality which Russia has proven they don’t have.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • I have to agree with Christopher on the visa issue, the latest form reierqus information about where and what you studied at college, your parents’ full names, the name of your previous two emploers with phone number of your boss plus your current employer, and a list of every country you’ve been to over the past 10 years indicating the year. Plus finding a decent hotel for less than about $200 per night is damned near impossible in Russia. No doubt the FIFA bigwigs have been whisked through immigration without a visa and haven’t found themselves trying to get registered in a hotel where the receptionist starts finding problems with the airport stamp in your passport, but I doubt the crowd showing up to watch will get the same treatment. I’ll be keeping my eye on Sochi to see how that pans out. Unless there are some major changes made, a world cup in Russia will be one of the hardest and most expensive to attend.

  6. Well reasoned article here. Why punish the athletes, who have worked so hard to reach the Olympics, just to make a statement of ethical and moral disapproval. I think national leaders’ absence does much more to illustrate their feels about such intolerant policies than an all out boycott. But the success of pro-equality athletes and/or, especially, openly gay athletes’ wins would provide an even broader rubbing in Putin’s face just as Owens was able to do in ’36.

    • Wholeheartedly agree that it would be the hard working athletes that would be the one’s to loose out if there had been a boycott. Why do we have to try and sanction something, just becasue the country has different views to our own? Is this not just a form of bullying, do it our way or there will be a penalty.

  7. The spirit of the games has almost been ruined by the controversy and hoopla surrounding them. They seem to have lost some of their integrity.

  8. I hate to be the voice of dissent, but I usually am, so I’ll put it out there: Citing the Jesse Owens victories at the Olympics in Berlin as a slap in the face to Hitler’s racism doesn’t hold water. There were virtually no people of African descent IN Germany anyway. A victory Jewish athlete would have been a triumph. You are comparing apples with oranges: There were no special triangles for the Black race. But there were for Jews, gays, and myriad other folks.

    I stand by my opinion that we should have boycotted. Sometimes you have to make a stand.

    • SLR, you are exactly right; the argument here is a straw man. Also for “@beauty” above, this is not just a disagreement. What if the state were sanctioning bloodying and beating of a racial minority? Or a religious group? Would you feel the same way? I thought so. This selective “love and let live” just exposes bigotry.

    • nikstar01

      No there’s no point in boycotting the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics as the only people your penalising is the athletes. Which they’ve trained for their whole lives. They’ve given up the chance to lead even a vaguely normal life and given every bit of their strength and soul to participate in for some will be a once in a life time opportunity! That amount of self sacrifice and dedication surely deserves the recognition in being able to compete and be rewarded for all that hard work. We have NO right to dictate to Athletes about participating in these games. Obama and Cameron have made their feelings very clear on Gay Rights by their non-addendance. So leave the politics to the politicians and leave the athletes to do what they do best. Without hinderance or the guilt of competing! BBC Sports Presenter is Gay, she rightly said being at Sochi in the forefront doing her job is the best way to make this point heard. Boycotting has never achieved anything.

  9. Reblogged this on luvsiesous and commented:

    Congratulations on Freshly Pressed.

    While I understand the gay agenda has ‘redefined’ the Russian legislation, the Russian legislation is actually pro children, not anti gay.

    They are Slavic, and Slavic people view life differently. So, they took a different direction to handle the gay agenda, and they chose to let adults decide about their sexuality, but not force children to become pawns of anyone’s agenda.


    I think their direction is much better for them than the western direction would be. And it may be better for US as well, but we have too many activists making certain our children are exposed early, and continuously to sex.

    Congratulations again on freshly pressed!


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  11. sxeveganbiking

    It’s not just gays (I assume you mean gay males) and lesbians that are being discriminated against in Russia. You forgot bisexuals, the trans community, intersex people… the list goes on. It’s reminiscent of Section 28 and the Conservative Party in the UK. It’s a law that breaks up families, instills fear and prejudice, endangers lives, stops young people being able to access vital services and education.

  12. tobiasreisner

    Reblogged this on

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  14. Honestly I think these Olympics are a mess. I am really against them because of all the animals that were poisoned just so humans could celebrate themselves and it makes me sick…not to mention the whole human rights issues. I am admittedly ignorant about such things but I don’t understand why they chose Sochi in the first place considering their beliefs and complete lack of infrastructure. My husband says its all politics, I say it’s just stupid. Great post.

  15. I don’t think a boycott was truly meant for Russia and their policies. But more for the Olympics and how they determine the location. They need to be more aware going forward in the future. Will the summer games be held in Syria? Where does the Olympic committee draw the line?

  16. Reblogged this on toluluda's Blog and commented:

  17. Well said and i agree. I feel far more opportunites for propaganda against the legislation have been provided by it running- this brilliant picture for instance which has been now turned into a t-shirt and is raising money for gay rights charities!

  18. Everyone has their own reason for doing things. I cannot in good conscience watch the Olympics after learning of the dogs being indiscriminately poisoned in the streets. No spay/neuter programs or laws, just killing. Then Russia tried to justify it and say only unhealthy dogs were killed. Baiting and poison don’t make that possible. So I won’t give money or ratings to something I don’t agree with.

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