Thursday, August 15, 2013

To Boycott Or Not To Boycott--That Is The Question

The debate around the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics, set to take place in Sochi, Russia has only heated up as the IOC has basically sided with the Russians and their stance on expressions of homosexuality. Basically, they're citing Article 50 of the Olympic charter that states that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Because Russia's draconian anti-gay "propaganda" laws are so broad and so loosely written, virtually anything--a rainbow lapel pin, an expression of love for a partner--maybe interpreted as "political" and punished under the statute.

In many ways, the IOC's behavior is more galling than the Russians. I don't really expect much from the Russians. They've got a ways to go on LGBT rights. And this isn't just a function of the legislative body gone rogue--a majority of Russians support these laws. But the fact that the IOC won't even demand that the Russians permit modest expressions of gay pride such as wearing rainbow color lapel pins. That is hardly a barnstorming protest and not at all disruptive to the proceedings.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I know that America is not perfect--heck, I just spent last night re-watching Eugene Jarecki's documentary The House I Live In, which is about the prison industrial complex that targets and victimizes poor people and addicts, especially those of color.

If the U.S. were to host another Olympic Games and a foreign athlete (or one of our own) wished to comment on the still-sorry state of race relations in this country, I'd welcome that. (Or our lack of universal healthcare. Or our polluting ways.) As I wrote previously, I think the black track and field athletes who raised their fists on the podium in 1968 were heroic. I don't think human suffering and the abridgment of rights should be pushed aside for the pomp of the Olympics. I don't think these things should be pushed aside under any circumstances.

One of the Jewish traditions I find particularly meaningful takes place during the wedding ceremony. After all of the blessings are done, the man/spouse breaks a glass. While the sound brings on a chorus of "mazal tovs," the breaking of the glass is meant to signify the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It's a reminder to temper our joy, to remember that even when we're happy (and what could be more joyous than a wedding?) that there is suffering in the world. Heck, there is probably suffering right there in that wedding hall--a guest who is ill, a mourner in the midst. There's no such thing as a perfect happiness.

I know gymnastics is not being contested at the Winter Games but boycotts are painful to fans of the sport because we keenly recall the 80 and 84 Games that were diminished by the absence of top athletes due to boycotts. In 80, President Carter boycotted to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Soviet bloc countries retaliated in 1984 with a boycott of their own. Obviously, neither of these boycotts were effective--what "worked" was the CIA funding of the mujahideen and that gave us Osama Bin Laden. Oy.

But this is different from 1980. That boycott was a political maneuver that failed--the U.S.S.R. didn't pull out of Afghanistan. The boycott wasn't an action to defend athletes unless there were a lot Afghani athletes competing back in those days. A boycott--which I'm not yet advocating since it only hurts the athletes--of Sochi would not be about protesting an action unrelated to the competition. It would be about defending LGBT athletes and their allies. The point of such an action wouldn't be to change Russia's laws; it would be about standing up for the dignity of the competitors and the spectators.

The present situation is more akin to the Olympics in 1936 where the Nazis' policies and laws not only had the potential of discriminating against their own Jewish population but against the visiting athletes and spectators. The IOC didn't stand up for the athletes aside from getting the Nazis to take down the anti-Jewish signs. (Check out this headline from The New York Times back in 36.) Not exactly a defense of Jewish athletes.

And the head of the Amateur American Olympic Committee went one step further in appeasing the host country. As my former JTA colleague Adam Soclof pointed out, Avery Brundage pulled two Jewish track and field athletes from the finals of the 4x100 relay and replaced them with two athletes who had never participated in that race:

"He wanted to save Hitler the humiliation of seeing Jews standing on the winning podium," Marty Glickman said in an interview 60 years after the incident. 
Glickman and Sam Stoller were replaced in the competition by two teammates who had not never trained in a relay; one of them was Jesse Owens. 
The U.S. team set a world record in the event, winning the gold medal for their 39.8 second performance. 
Avery Brundage maintained correspondence with Nazi party members during WWII and was a member of two American political groups that tended to attract Nazi sympathizers. According to a 1948 Life Magazine article, Brundage quit both groups the day after Pearl Harbor. 
In 1952, Brundage became the fifth president of the IOC, the first American to hold that position. The last Olympic Games that he presided over were the 1972 Munich Olympic Games.


And the Munich Games went really well for the Jews, didn't they? (For those of you that don't recall, it was in 1972 that PLO gunmen held the Israeli athletes and coaches hostage and ended up murdering eleven of them. And yet Brundage didn't let that "political" act interfere with the competitions.)

I still don't favor the idea of a boycott because at this late stage, I don't think it would be possible to stage the Games in a different city. (Though if that were still possible, I'd love to see that.) Boycotts mostly hurt athletes, especially those for whom the Olympics are the pinnacle of their sports. A hockey player still has the NHL but what of the luger? The Olympics are IT for him.

But we shouldn't let the IOC to kowtow to the Russians and whitewash these Olympic Games and hide behind Article 50 and pretend it's possible to be completely apolitical. I'd love to see the entire U.S. delegation wear rainbow lapel pins or kiss one another, same-sex style. It has to be the U.S. that sets the example here because it will have one of the largest contingents there and if they all acted together and publicly, it would hard for the Russians to punish them. And perhaps others would follow suit.

Just as in the Jewish wedding, we can't forget the indignity and persecution of others even when we're celebrating sport and the height of human athletic achievement.

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