Should the West Have Boycotted the Sochi Olympics?

(Written around March 2014)

The Olympic Games are far more than a sports event. They are an opportunity for the host country to bolster its image on the world stage; to exhibit  its diplomatic, economic and cultural prominence. When, this year, it was Russia’s turn to showcase the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Prsident Vladimir Putin’s aspirations were no different. The Sochi Winter Games were the most expensive Olympic Games ever held, costing an estimated $51 billion. It was Vladimir Putin’s opportunity to not only portray Russia as a heavyweight on the world stage, but also to portray a new, ‘cleaned up’ image of Russia; so show that it had cleaned up their human rights record and could cooperate with other global powers.

But there were many campaigners in the West who called for a boycott on the grounds of various human rights violations in Russia.  Many argued that the right to freedom of association had been curtailed, as Russia had begun to classify Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which receive foreign funding as ‘foreign agents’, which, to the public, portrays them as foreign spies. USAID, the American government’s international assistance organisation, was also expelled and banned from Russia, leaving certain groups without important funding.

Freedom of assembly and free speech had also been infringed upon, campaigners argued, as demonstrators and activists campaigning against Putin and the state faced harassment, intimidation and arrest. These laws were intensified after mass demonstrations against Putin in September 2011 and May 2012, with the Kremlin tightening restrictions and sanctions for protest as a result. The most well-known examples of these policies in action include the detention of Pussy Riot, who staged a performance denouncing Putin in Moscow’s main cathedral in February 2012, and of 30 Greenpeace activists (dubbed the ‘Arctic 30’) who attempted to board a Russian oil rig in October 2013. However, both Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30 were released in December 2013 under an amnesty law, along with Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, supposedly as a public relations exercise ahead of the Olympics.

The issue which received the most media attention concerned Russia’s legislation passed in 2013, which criminalised the distribution of ‘homosexual propaganda’ to under-18s, and since its introduction a sharp rise in homophobic violence has been recorded. This is all a part of a general campaign by Putin to reinforce the traditional power of the Russian Orthodox Church, whilst simultaneously clamping down on dissenting voices.

However, without dismissing the good intentions of LGBT activists and struggles that the LGBT community in Russia faces, there were some misconceptions about this ‘anti-gay’ legislation. The maximum penalty for breaking this law is not incarceration. Russian citizens will be fined 5,000 rubles, whilst foreigners face deportation. Police have no powers to detain anyone for simply suspecting they might be gay. Homosexuals in Russia can adopt children, and they can also donate blood without discrimination, unlike in Britain and the US.

Homosexuality in Russia is not illegal; but it certainly is in more than 40 countries in the British Commonwealth and 70 other countries across the world. India continues to enforce a ban on homosexuality implemented under British colonial rule, whereby those convicted face 10 years in jail. David Cameron’s response to India’s recent decision to uphold this law? That it was merely ‘a matter for India’. In fact, Russia’s legislation on ‘homosexual propaganda’ bears much resemblance to that introduced in Britain in 1988 under Margaret Thatcher, known as ‘Section 28’, which banned local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’ or the teaching in schools ‘of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship’. This was upheld – with the support of William Hague and current Prime Minister David Cameron – until 2003.

Similarly, Obama has yet to speak out against America’s close ally Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment, torture and state murder of homosexuals. And lets not kid ourselves; Putin’s anti-gay legislation would be welcomed by many in America, a country that also has a widespread and influential conservative, Christian population, strongly opposed to homosexuality. In fact, US states Utah and Arizona share very similar laws, prohibiting the advocacy of homosexual relationships or the portrayal of homosexuality as a ‘positive alternative lifestyle’. Additionally, both Alabama and Texas instruct that children should be taught that homosexuality is a criminal offence, despite the fact that the criminalisation of private, consensual homosexual conduct has been unconstitutional since 2003.

Moreover it could be argued that Putin’s measures against protestors such as Pussy Riot and the Arctic 30 are little different from those taken by the British government to silence dissenting voices. During the student protests in London in 2010, demonstrators – some as young as 12 – were kettled in freezing cold conditions for hours, without access to basic rights such as food, water or toilet facilities. Police in many cases had planned kettles pre-emptively, without evidence of an immediate risk of serious disorder, essentially criminalising protest. Police had been criticised for their brutality – one youth needing brain surgery after being battered by a truncheon, another with cerebral palsy being dragged from his wheelchair.

Furthermore, the case of Trenton Oldfield – the man arrested for interrupting the 2012 Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race – shares many similarities with the case of Pussy Riot (bar the positive media attention the latter received in the West). Protesting the inequality of British society, Oldfield received a 6 months jail sentence and at one point faced deportation to Australia, despite having lived in Britain for over 10 years with a wife, a child on the way, and with no previous convictions.

Rather than an act of solidarity with oppressed people, many of the charges against Putin are part of a US diplomatic campaign. The media here in the West is supporting an anti-Russian campaign of the type not seen since the Cold War era. We see an endlessly one-sided image of Russia and a relentless demonisation of Vladimir Putin – who ironically enjoys far more popularity at home than the likes of David Cameron or Barack Obama do in their respective states. News is characterised by a complete lack of analysis or alternative perspectives. Whilst Russia may indeed have many issues and repugnant policies, as Stephen F. Cohen argued earlier this year in The Nation, ‘anyone relying on mainstream American media will not find there any of their origins or influences in Yeltsin’s Russia or in provocative US policies since the 1990s’.

And in some ways it is not difficult to sympathise with Putin’s decision to classify foreign-funded NGOs as ‘foreign agents’, nor the ban on USAID. The West, led by America, had been creeping towards Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union with NATO expansion into the east, US-funded NGO political activities within Russia, as well as the placement of a NATO military base in Georgia and missile-defence nearby. The primary motive for these actions is not altruism. It is, rather, to secure American interests and dominance over the region. And USAID is certainly not just a group of cuddly humanitarians; we’ve recently heard the news that USAID used young Latin Americans to incite rebellion in Cuba, and used HIV workshops as an excuse for political goals. Now, can we imagine how America would perceive a Russian ‘humanitarian’ organisation working within its border to spread ‘democracy’?

There is also another issue here. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Olympic Games themselves are part of an industry primarily concerned with profit and have, if anything, long been a regressive force for human rights. The IOC brushed off criticisms of the fascist Nazi regime when it came to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, and even as war with fasict Germany loomed, the IOC awarded Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany the 1940 Winter Olympics. Whilst the IOC claimed that it had no intention of being influenced by politics, they did, however, order Tommy Smith and John Carlos – the two men who displayed the black power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – to be banned from the US olympic team for their actions. The IOC were more horrified by this brave act than they were by Nazis.

In Sport in Capitalist Society, Tony Collins writes that within the last 30 years, the Olympics have become ‘a travelling totalitarian state that pitched up in a host city every couple of years and subjected the population, especially the poor and racially oppressed, to police-state measures and celebrations of corporate indulgence.’ The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics began this trend, with organisers creating ‘militarized zones’ through ‘banning demonstrations, ‘socially cleansing’ the homeless, prostitutes and others, and employing thousands of additional police and military operatives.’ Fast forward to the 2010 Winter Olympics, and things were no better. Vancouver had ‘banned leaflets, unauthorised placards and megaphones, outlawed demonstrations unless approved by the police, allowed the police to enter homes to take down protest signs hung outside of buildings and authorised the use of military technology … against demonstrators.’

By appealing to the IOC to support LGBT rights, campaigners are appealing to an organisation that, since its inception, has always played a prominent role in reinforcing gender divisions and heteronormativity in the sporting establishment. Most significantly, the IOC assumed the right to determine one’s sex through introducing mandatory sex-testing for women in the mid-1960s, born out of a fear that some women competitors ‘were not quite as feminine as they declared’. This was, as 1972 pentathlon gold medallist Mary Peters described, ‘the most crude and degrading experience I have ever known.’ As Collins writes, women with an unusual genetic makeup or biological disorder would be publicly humiliated, but on no occasion was a ‘man posing as a woman’, nor a woman taking hormonal replacement therapy to become a man, ever discovered. Of course, male athletes were never subjected to sex-testing to prove their masculinity.

The IOC still today retains the right to test athletes in individual cases. ‘The underlying yet predominant concern,’ Collins explains, ‘is policing an arbitrary boundary between male and female’. How much have things really changed since the IOC’s founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, declared back in 1912 that ‘the true Olympic hero is … the individual male adult’?

Although there is much to condemn about the Russian state and its policies, ultimately Western leaders’ concerns are not with human rights abuses. If this were the case, we’d see a more consistent criticism of issues at home and in allied countries. And the Olympics, despite its fuzzy image, is a profit-driven and often corrupt industry which itself demands restrictions on human rights in each country that it stages events in. A boycott of the Sochi Olympics would have simply been another diplomatic snub; all to do with power politics, nothing to do with human rights.

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