Western leaders — including President Barack Obama — say they don’t support a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games based on host country Russia’s stridently anti-gay policies. The ones who would be hurt the most, goes the argument, are the athletes who have trained so hard to realize their Olympic dream.
That’s true, and a boycott probably would do little to help gays and lesbians in Russia, where discrimination against them is enshrined in state policy. New laws there criminalize any public support for homosexuals — such as gay pride events — as well as discussing homosexuality or gay rights with anyone younger than 18. Recent actions show that the government and police tolerate violent acts against homosexuals, which reportedly have increased since enactment of the harsher anti-gay laws.
But leaders should exercise, well, leadership. They should demand that Russia clarify its position on whether those anti-gay laws will be enforced against Olympic participants and those attending the games. The International Olympic Committee says it’s received assurances from Russian officials that athletes and fans won’t be targeted. But the Interior Ministry says the laws will be enforced during the games.
So which is it?
Some critics of Russia’s anti-gay policies are suggesting that athletes use the games to show their support for gay rights — perhaps by wearing a rainbow pin. But the IOC apparently has nixed that, citing its rule that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
A rainbow pin is political propaganda? Under Russian law, certainly. But the Olympic spirit — which supposedly rejects discrimination — should embrace such a whimsical statement espousing basic human rights. IOC officials should not be threatening to punish athletes who would uphold that spirit by advocating for equality, and the IOC is wrong if it considers that to be political “propaganda.”
Athletes who want to object to Russia’s discriminatory policies should be allowed to — and not face IOC sanctions. Their passive resistance — performed on a world stage — could do more to fight hate laws than any boycott.
Looking ahead, the IOC should require that any country bidding to host future games make clear that it will guarantee a discrimination-free venue for athletes and visitors.