Friday, August 2, 2013

On A Potential Sochi Boycott

The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are increasingly becoming a frontline in the battle over LGBT rights. One report one day will say that Russia will not enforce the anti-LGBT laws on their books during the games, and then another report the next day will say that they not only will but that LGBT athletes will face the risk of arrest. There are increasing calls to boycott the Games in protest, with concerns not exactly assuaged by a warning from Russian minister of sports Vitaly Mutko that athletes are to be prohibited from advocating LGBT rights while in Russia.

And on top of all that, the same guy making a push on these laws, Vitaly Milonov, is now accusing Lady Gaga and Madonna of violating their visas by not only speaking out in favor of LGBT rights during concerts they performed while in the country, but by having the concerts at all, claiming that their visas were only for cultural exchange purposes and did not allow "commercial concert activities", meaning they were not permitted to make money holding the concerts. Which kind of defeats the purpose.

Do you boycott? I personally would say no. Boycotts have happened before, but all that happens in the end is your message stays home with you, and the Games just go on without you, and the medals get awarded to the very nations you're protesting against. Do you discredit the Games; devalue them? No. Olympic gold is Olympic gold no matter who's going after it. All you do by staying home is forfeit, the same as if you'd broken a leg and pulled out of your event. Do you hold an alternative event? Go ahead, but nobody but you cares.

In 1936, Spain attempted to put together the People's Olympiad in response to the Olympics being held in Nazi Germany. It never happened; the Spanish Civil War happened first. In 1980, nations boycotting the Moscow Olympics held an alternate event (well, for the track and field athletes, anyway) called the Liberty Bell Classic in Philadelphia. There's a very good chance this is the first you've heard of it even though some of the times and distances beat those marks set in Moscow. Why haven't you heard of it? Because everyone was paying attention to Moscow. The Soviet Union carried on and happily won all the medals the United States essentially gifted them, but they certainly cared, enough to revenge boycott Los Angeles in 1984, and those nations held a more comprehensive event called the Friendship Games, spreading hosting duties over nine countries. Again, this is likely the first you've heard of it. Who cared? Certainly not the United States, which proceeded to merrily romp to gold after gold, whoop it up all Games long, and not give half a damn what the Soviets thought of it.

The African-led boycott of Montreal in 1976 did, to be fair, seem to have an effect on those Games, however, it should be noted that those Games were a total disaster on nearly every level with or without Africa's involvement due to the drugged-up East Germans and, shall we say, bungling incompetence on the part of Montreal, up to and including the part where the torch went out due to rain and a worker relit the cauldron with a cigarette lighter. Pinning the failure of Montreal on the boycott is overselling it, and even then, Montreal did bring some notable images such as Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10, Shun Fujimoto's powering through a broken knee for the Japanese men's gymnastics team because he still had to complete the rings, Bruce Jenner's performance in the decathlon, and an American boxing team that included Sugar Ray Leonard and both Leon and Michael Spinks.

The real effect it has is on the athletes themselves. They didn't get a vote on where the Olympics would be that year. Many if not most of them are only ever going to go to the Olympics once in their entire life, they train and work and sweat and sacrifice so much time to get that one shot, and to take that shot away because you don't like where the Olympics happen to be this time, because of political factors that they have nothing to do with... we're basically taking their dreams away and forcing them to like it, perhaps even to speak out in favor of it. Perhaps some of them will. But many of them just want to compete.

As a nation, if even one athlete wants to go, even if it's only that one, we go. We send that one athlete, we give him the flag and give him all the support the nation has at its disposal. But the athletes are the ones who have everything at stake here. So it ought to ultimately be their individual call. If an athlete wishes to boycott, then abide by their wish. If it is feasible to do so, you might even leave their spot on the team blank (though you can't do this for all events; they may have teammates that don't wish to be dragged into a boycott with them and those spots will need to be refilled). But if an athlete wishes to travel to the Games, send them, support them, root for them, and allow them every opportunity to make the ultimate Olympic protest: beating the enemy and taking their medals. Nothing will tick them off more than that.

Besides, one of them might decide to risk forfeiture of their medal and make like Tommie Smith/John Carlos gesture on the medal stand like in Mexico City. (And believe me, the IOC would rip that medal out of their hands so fast.)

As for you the fan, I would request that whatever an athlete decides to do, do not judge them for it. It's a very tough decision you'd be asking them to make. They're the ones who would be asked to pit their dreams against their morals. They're the ones with everything on the line, not you. Don't pressure them into going. Don't pressure them into not going. We should not act as Margaret Thatcher acted towards Sebastian Coe 1980, placing the full pressure of the British government personally on his families (Coe went and won a gold and a silver), or as Jimmy Carter acted against the American team, where he threatened to revoke the passport of anyone who went to Moscow. We stand back, we let them make up their own minds, we support those who stay home, and we support those who go.

But we go.

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