Friday, July 26, 2013

Are Olympic boycotts justified?

In last weekend's New York Times, Harvey Firestein, a Broadway legend, writes about the new anti-gay legislation that Vladimir Putin just signed into law in Russia, including a law banning the adoption of Russian children by homosexuals or people who come from countries where marriage equality exists. (The right should use this in their propaganda--if we allow the gays to marry, Russia won't let us adopt their children.) He also signed into law that allows the police to arrest folks that are suspected of being gay. (These are actually just two out of a host of restrictions that have either passed or will soon become law.)

As we know, gay people are everywhere. They're your friends, neighbors, mailmen, and even, gasp, professional athletes. (Check out this AMAZING clip from Totally Biased about NBA star Jason Collins coming out of the closet. It gets really good at 2:10)

The IOC has promised that these wouldn't affect LGBT athletes in Sochi, but Firestein thinks the IOC should go one step further--demand the retraction of these rules under threat of boycott. (Apparently, Dutch tourists were just arrested as a result of these new rules so they're not just being applied to Russian citizens.)

Olympic boycotts don't sit well with gymnastics fans. Many of us have played endless games of "What if?" when thinking about the 80 and 84 Games. What if the Soviet squad had been there in 84? Would Mary Lou Retton have won? (Probably not.) What if the U.S. men, who had been riding high before the 80 Games, had had the opportunity to compete? And so on and so forth.

I'm not an elite athlete. I haven't trained for hours every day in pursuit of just one goal. I can't imagine the devastation of some of the athletes who missed "their" Games as a result of action taken by Jimmy Carter. (We don't really hear from the Soviet gymnasts and those from satellite countries who missed out on 84 but I'm sure they were also disappointed.)

But then again, what should be done in the face of laws like this? I like Firestein's idea of the IOC, rather than an individual nation applying pressure or acting especially since it doesn't have the political baggage of, say, a country who can be accused of hypocrisy and its own human rights violations. (How many states in the U.S. just passed racist voter ID laws? Looking at you, North Carolina.) Then again there's the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. The IOC has its own history of ignoring discrimination to live down. But at least it's not ongoing and they're not actively oppressing people.

I'm aware that I live in a glass house called the U.S. of A. We invade nations with sovereign borders or we use CIA ops to overthrow governments we dislike (Iran, Nicaragua, Haiti, and so on and so forth). Same difference. So I'm not here to advocate a U.S. boycott of the Winter Olympics in Sochi as a result of Russia's incredibly oppressive and homophobic laws. I certainly don't want a boycott to take place--merely the threat of one to force a discussion of these laws. But I do want to acknowledge that this is a fair discussion to be having. It is fair to think about whether or not we should participate in a Games when they just passed laws that discriminate against many of the invited athletes. I mean, the Winter Games include figure skating for god's sake.

And to all those who stupidly claim that the Olympics aren't supposed to be political I issue my strongest possible eye roll.

Let's be real here for a minute--the Olympics are political at their best and worst (and corporate at its most benign--or maybe that isn't actually benign). To pretend otherwise is to be grossly ignorant of history. Iranian athletes refuse to face off against Israeli ones. South African athletes were banned from the Olympics during apartheid. (A fact I know because I watched Muriel's Wedding.) Vera Caslavska stood with her head bowed during the 1968 Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of her country. And at the same Games, two American track medalists bowed their heads during "The Star Bangled Banner" and raised their fists in the black nationalist salute--a move that I fully support considering what was going on in the U.S. at the time. There were assassinations and violent backlash against the Civil Rights movement. To be African American at that time meant to be profoundly (and justifiably) angry. Heck, it's still justifiable given our current laws and practices. If we send athletes to an Olympics to represent the country, they are free to represent the whole country--all of its laws and practices, some just and some unjust. It can't all be pride and stars and stripes. Sometimes it's also civil rights abuses, assassinations, income inequality, and the prison industrial complex or whatever ills motivates them to speak out.

And just as our athletes can and should speak out, our officials should too to defend the athletes (and the spectators) and not let two weeks of good behavior (I'm sure Putin won't arrest gays and supporters during the Games because that would be a PR disaster) get Russia off the hook.

Check out these photos on Buzzfeed that collected from various LGBT marches in Russia that ended in violence being rained down on the protestors, with many of the protestors being arrested.

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