Should We Boycott the Sochi Olympics?

Gay rights advocates such as actor Harvey Fierstein are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, over Russia’s highly repressive new law banning “homosexual propaganda,” any speech that equates the social status same-sex relationships with heterosexual ones.
Others argue that the West should not boycott the Olympics, but should instead use it as an opportunity to highlight Russia’s abuses of gay rights. Russian officials have given conflicting statements about whether the law will be enforced against gay athletes and foreign visitors during the games.

The anti-gay crackdown is just one of many human rights abuses undertaken by the regime of ex-KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin. Others include repression of opposition media and persecution of critics of the government. Indeed, the government’s promotion of homophobia is just one facet of its broader ideology of authoritarian nationalism.

In terms of promoting the cause of human rights in Russia, I suspect that a boycott would be more effective than merely calling attention to abuses, while simultaneously attending the Games. Hosting the Olympics is nearly always a propaganda victory for the government of the nation where they take place. Even an otherwise corrupt and inefficient government can put on an impressive dog and pony show that draws favorable media coverage, if given years to prepare. The nation that gave the world the concept of the Potemkin Village is surely no exception.

A boycott has a greater chance of effectively punishing Russia for its unjust policies, and stimulating pressure for change. Sports boycotts against South Africa may have helped hasten the fall of apartheid. The boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics by the US and sixty other nations is often seen as a failure because it did not put an end to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. But it did deny a brutal totalitarian regime what would have been a valuable propaganda victory. Some argue that the US was right not to boycott the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany, because it led to victories by Jesse Owens and other black athletes, which contradicted Nazi ideology. At the time, however, the Berlin Olympics were generally perceived as a propaganda success for the Third Reich.

But in deciding whether a boycott is defensible, it’s worth keeping in mind that, bad as it is, Russia’s human rights record is no worse than that of numerous other authoritarian and quasi-authoritarian governments. Unlike its communist predecessor, today’s Russian government allows some degree of freedom for opposition movements, and does not engage in mass murder. As recently as 2008, the summer Olympics were held in China, a nation ruled by a regime with an even worse human rights record than Russia’s, including the forcible expulsion of over one million people from their homes in order to prepare for the Olympic Games themselves. Yet there were few calls for a boycott in 2008, and those few were largely ignored. Many other governments, particularly in the Muslim world, also have antigay policies harsher than Russia’s.

To conclude that Russia is an unfit host for the Olympics because of its human rights record is essentially to say that only liberal democracies should be allowed to host such events. Maybe that should indeed be the standard. I tentatively lean in that direction myself. But we should be clear about the principles involved and try to apply them consistently.

Obviously, we could instead conclude that repression of gays and lesbians justifies a boycott, but violations of other human rights do not. I’m a strong supporter of gay and lesbian equality. But I don’t see any justification for such a double standard. It is wrong for Russia to punish “gay propaganda.” But it is no less wrong for it to engage in various other kinds of unjust censorship on a comparable or greater scale. It’s not obvious to me that Russia’s oppression of gays and lesbians falls in a qualitatively different category from, say, China’s oppression of the Tibetans.

UPDATE: One possible argument against boycotting the Sochi Olympics – or any Olympics – is the traditional idea that international sports events should be free of politics, and therefore should not be used to make a political point. This is a potentially attractive principle. The problem is that the Olympics are virtually always used as a propaganda tool by the host government. For that reason, it is nearly impossible to make them genuinely politically neutral. Unfortunately, the only realistic options are either to allow repressive regimes to use the games to burnish their public image, keep them from hosting them in the first place, or undercut their propaganda by means of a boycott widespread enough to undercut the games’ public relations benefits for the hosts.

UPDATE #2: It is perhaps worth noting that the Russian government’s antigay policies are in line with majority public opinion in that country, which is very homophobic.