- How We Blew It in Sochi:The LGBT Community Took a Shot at Anti-Gay Laws in Russia and Missed the Olympic-Sized Target
When Russia enacted anti-gay “propaganda” laws in the summer of 2013, LGBT activists around the world wondered if this was the beginning of a Nazi-style crackdown on homosexuality. Activists and advocates felt like their hands were tied behind their backs. Russia is an isolated political system, thumbing its nose at the dreaded “West” every chance it gets. President Vladimir Putin has built his reputation and powerful political career on his defiance of the West and its cultural norms. With European and North American cultures shifting to embrace gay people and featuring them in film, television and the news, it was logical that Putin would push Russian society in the opposite direction. No prodding from President Barack Obama or any other Western leaders was going to change that.
Yet an opportunity to make hay was on the horizon. Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea, would host the Winter Olympics in February 2014. They were already being labeled “Putin’s Olympics,” because the president himself had vested powerful capital to secure Sochi as the host and to build world-class venues to impress the rest of the world. Putin wanted these Olympics to be perfect. He needed them to be. This is was his opportunity to showcase Russia’s return to the world as a dominant power. This was about Russian pride. [End Page 30]
The opportunity to use the Olympics to raise awareness about LGBT rights was ripe for the picking. Yet the question remained: How could the LGBT community use these Olympics to bring change to a Russian society and legal system that was bucking the Western trend and becoming more intolerant of gay people? What tactics could be used? Just as Olympic hockey teams were plotting to win gold medals in Sochi, the LGBT community was doing the same.
In the summer of 2013, calls for an Olympic boycott took center stage. The last time the Olympics were held in Russia (then the Soviet Union), the United States boycotted due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. The Americans had not boycotted an Olympic Games since.
Demands for a boycott showed a powerful divide between the LGBT community and the sports world. Although many gay people outside of sports increased the volume of their calls for the United States to stay home, straight and gay people within the sports world even more vocally opposed the idea, and for good reason: The boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow remains a black eye on the presidency of Jimmy Carter for three main reasons.
First, it denied athletes the right to represent their country and compete. No one just wakes up one day and qualifies for the Olympic Games. It takes years of training and powerful resources to simply be invited to participate. The people most hurt by the 1980 Olympic boycott were the athletes told by their government that their Olympic dreams would not come to pass. One of those athletes was diver Greg Louganis, who went on to win two gold medals in each of the 1984 and 1988 Olympic Games. Other athletes, for whom 1980 was their only Olympic opportunity, were not so lucky.
Second, the boycott heightened tensions between the Soviet Union and the United States. Already embroiled in the Cold War, Carter’s decision to keep U.S. athletes from competing tainted the level of competition at the Moscow Games and was a geopolitical embarrassment for the Soviet Union. Four years later, the Soviets boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Tit for tat.
Finally, and most important, the boycott didn’t work. The Soviets stayed in Afghanistan until 1989, after both Carter and his successor, Ronald Reagan, had left the White House. If anything, the boycott strengthened the Soviet Union’s resolve to stay in Afghanistan lest it appear they were caving to Western pressure.
Boycotting the Sochi Olympics would target the wrong people and not deliver the results anyone was looking for.
Looking to shift the conversation toward actions against...