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[ 78 ] August 16, 2013 |

I’m not particularly comfortable with the idea of boycotting the Winter Olympics in Russia because of the nation’s anti-gay laws. Mostly, I don’t think it’s fair to athletes to be used as pawns in a political game and I do think that athletes can become Tommie Smith and John Carlos, protesting in very powerful ways. What would be more powerful, a boycott or athletes on the medal stand making clear statements in solidarity with gay Russians? The latter by far.

That said, the idea that U.S. athletes should “comply” with Russia’s anti-gay laws, as suggested by United States Olympic Committee chief executive Scott Blackmun, is deeply offensive. His point is that athletes should always comply with the laws of the country where they visit. 99% of the time that is absolutely correct. Complying with laws that violate basic standards of decency and discriminate against people, well that’s a whole other thing.


Comments (78)

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  1. BKN in Canadia says:

    Apartheid-era South Africa was the subject of a bunch of sporting boycotts. How do we feel about that? Because in the past few weeks I’ve heard a number of arguments against boycotting Sochi that seem pretty similar to what I recall hearing back in the day with respect to South Africa.

    • mojrim says:

      Beware making comparrisons of that kind in international relations. SA had a vulnerable economy and was in about to slide into open civil war. Russia is under no such organic pressure and we’re fresh out of diplomatic credibility.

    • Murc says:

      What I’m anticipating happening, assuming Russia is smart, is they’ll talk big and then do nothing.

      Russia absolutely will not the spectacle of its jails overflowing with foreign activists while it tries to host the Olympics. At the same time, for domestic political reasons, Putin and Co. can’t LOOK like they’re backing down.

      So what they’ll do is talk a big game, and then when the games arrive they’ll do… nothing. Demonstrations will go off with nary a peep from the security forces. The games will happen as planned, and everything will disappear from the news cycle afterwards.

      Then they can return to crushing homegrown dissent, which is what this is really about.

      Of course, all this is predicated on Russia being smart.

      • Jeffrey Beaumont says:

        This is right clearly. Russia isnt going to arrest anyone unless someone really forces their hand, and it would probably have to be pretty extreme. The athletes are already protesting in all sorts of public ways at the run up tournaments, etc.

        It is totally unfair to boycott the olympics over russia’s ridiculous paranoia. If you were some obscure Minnesota kid who had trained for years to do biathlon or something, you might not get another chance to compete for your country.

        • Leeds man says:

          I’d be more concerned about the obscure Nizhny Novgorod LGBT kid. A boycott would do fuck all for her/him. But point taken.

        • Aimai says:

          Jeffrey Beaumont,
          This is clearly wrong. Homophobia in Russia is a very big business and goes hand in hand with anti immigrant and anti western attitudes and violence. What the Russian police will do is just the tip of the iceberg. It might be possible to dream that Putin’s police won’t see any need to arrest and or attack high profile atheletes–there’s zero reason to believe that they won’t arrest and even try and convict ordinary tourists and IOC staff and trainers and family members. In addition, we should all be worried about the paramilitary exploiters of sexual violence against Russian citizens and immigrants who are thought to be LGBTQ and/or merely non ethnic Russian.

          I hate this “tell the kid in Minn” as though its the fault of the gay people that Russia is making it difficult for the Olympics to be held there safely.

          • Ed K says:

            I also get the sense that this is very much tied to xenophobia. ‘Homosexuality is a western thing,’ etc., in the rhetoric, so external protests and demonstrations by foreigners may have very little effect internally other than to reinforce and confirm that line of attack.

            To the extent that this is right, it makes it that much more difficult to see how external pressure can be applied productively.

            • Uncle Kvetch says:

              I also get the sense that this is very much tied to xenophobia. ‘Homosexuality is a western thing,’ etc., in the rhetoric, so external protests and demonstrations by foreigners may have very little effect internally other than to reinforce and confirm that line of attack.

              This is definitely a big complicating factor. During the Pussy Riot trial I heard a lot about how pressure for leniency from “the West” was actively pushing Russian public opinion in the other direction. And I don’t know how you work around that.

              • Aimai says:

                I’m sorry I don’t even remember where I started link jumping on this subject but I read a ton of important, insider type, accounts of the history of Russian Homophobia and ethnic/nationalist hysteria yesterday and they really, really, horrified and educated me. It is absolutely possible for outside protest to make things demonstrably worse and to harden Russian attitudes towards an extremely vulnerable population (immigrant as well as gay or merely suspected immigrant/gay).

                The idea that by protesting and sending vulnerable atheletes and tourists into Russia we are showing them something is, to me, rather an untested idea. My guess is that if “nothing happens” in the sense that the Russians don’t arrest or imprison anyone important for “propaganda” then the Russian population remains unenlightened and uninformed. They will go back to pretending that gayness is unrussian, dangerous, pedophilic, and criminal. If there are riots and protests? They will simply assimilate that to generic Russian weepy exceptionalism: everyone is against us! These bastard immigrants and foreigners want to destroy us!

                Its a no win situation. I know the games won’t be moved but they should be and I think that under those circumstances Russian amour propre would be wounded and they probably wouldn’t learn anything useful, except they would still blame the gays for spoiling their moment in the sun.

              • wengler says:

                Of course if Pussy Riot had engaged in the same type of protests in the West they would have been forced to register as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives and spent a good deal of time in jail and/or doing community service.

                I’m sorry but the blow up in Western capitals over Pussy Riot was all about trying to make Putin and Russia look bad and the Russians knew it. Their government does the exact same thing.

                • Hogan says:

                  Of course if Pussy Riot had engaged in the same type of protests in the West they would have been forced to register as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives and spent a good deal of time in jail and/or doing community service.

                  Of course they would.

                • ChrisTS says:

                  Say what?

                • joe from Lowell says:

                  Of course if Pussy Riot had engaged in the same type of protests in the West they would have been forced to register as sexual offenders for the rest of their lives and spent a good deal of time in jail and/or doing community service.

                  D00d, what?

          • Origami Isopod says:

            Thank you.

            Really, people, the disappointed dreams of athletes are not as important as the rights of queer people to go around and not be beaten or jailed or killed. For christ’s sake.

            • mojrim says:

              Except that the issue here is effectiveness. Russia has always had a strong xenophobic streak; outside pressure is far more likely to make things worse rather then better. My parents married before Loving v. Virginia; a century after the civil war and there were still places I would have been born a bastard. Some processes take time.

      • Warren Terra says:

        I rather think it’s a mistake to bet on enough people being smart, in a country the size of Russia, with stupid, evil policies and some brave people willing to take risks to expose that evil. So: I’d not be at all surprised if people demonstrating for Gay human rights get arrested during the Games, even some foreigners.

      • NewishLawyer says:

        I’m not so sure based upon the violence currently being inflicted upon LGBT people in Russia.

        I’m very much reminded of the progroms that caused by ancestors to flee Russia.

        • Murc says:

          There’s a difference between Russia cracking down internally in a way that doesn’t really get a lot of attention internationally and them doing things like sweeping up a thousand foreign nationals demonstrating outside the largest sporting event in the world with a million cameras watching and throwing them in the hole, tho.

          I mean, I could be wrong. Maybe they really WILL run the Olympic Village like a police state, going pavilion-by-pavilion and locking up everyone displaying a rainbow symbol. But I don’t see them being that dumb.

  2. brad says:

    But isn’t the central dilemma that Russia has said they’ll hold visiting athletes to the standards of their law in all its intentionally broad and offensive vagueness and arrest those who protest?

    • Brien Jackson says:

      As I understood it, come “Russian officials” were even makingnoise about arresting openly gay athletes as well.

      • Auguste says:

        That’s what I find missing from every analysis that falls on the “don’t boycott” side: Addressing the fact that for as much abuse as Smith & Carlos were subjected to, they were never arrested.

        Whether Russia turns out to be all talk or not, how do you say “Go protest, athletes! Sure you might see the inside of a jail, but isn’t it worth it?”

        • Auguste says:

          On the other hand, I see from Pierce that Dr. Carlos himself is against a boycott. On the other other hand, again, see that Dr. Carlos was not arrested.

        • Leeds man says:

          Then, you know, leave it up to the athletes. I assume they are pretty well informed.

          • Aimai says:

            Sure, but leave it up to the athletes is a huge problem for those who think that a principled boycott needs to happen. Because it isn’t a question of whether gay athletes are well informed or not,but whether gay atheletes are being essentially disinvited from the Olympics by being put at a higher risk than their non gay co-atheletes.

            I’m not pro-boycott–I think the Olympics can’t be held in a state which has passed a law, after applying for the Olympics–which physically and legally endangers a huge number of atheletes, trainers, and spectators. If we were talking about money, for example, and Russia had suddenly passed a law saying that it could empty the bank accounts of all tourists and olympic athletes and businessmen entering the country at will we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Russia has passed a draconian new law which is quite dangerous to both Russian citizens and to the temporary visitors and they did it after the fact.

            This is not simply a matter for individual Athletes and their consciences. To leave it at that puts the onus on gay atheletes to miss the olympics out of fear and leaves other atheletes in an artificially better position to medal.

            • Bijan Parsia says:

              Ah, I missed this when I wrote my reply to JL. JL! See this comment!

            • Ed K says:

              This is the most compelling argument I’ve seen for not attending, canceling, or moving.

              I’m highly skeptical of the idea that any sort of international pressure is going to change, or even improve, the climate for LGBT people in Russia at this juncture. But I’m equally skeptical of the idea that individual or even collective acts of protest at the games will do much.

              Given that, I’d default to letting people compete, but insofar as that entails asking people to expose themselves to an extremely badly defined and arbitrary risk of arrest, imprisonment, or any number of other really awful consequences, it seems that this is one of those places where a responsible institutional authority / organizing body has to say no.

        • JL says:

          I don’t think Erik is saying “Go protest, athletes!” but is saying that not boycotting gives athletes the space to protest if they want to do that.

          I have no patience for armchair activists telling athletes that they should go protest and be willing to be arrested for the cause. In general, I have little patience for armchair activists telling people on the ground that they really ought to risk martyrdom For The Cause. But if the athletes decided to take that risk, I’d support them.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            Right–obviously it should be up to the individual athlete.

          • Bijan Parsia says:

            I don’t think Erik is saying “Go protest, athletes!” but is saying that not boycotting gives athletes the space to protest if they want to do that.

            I don’t get this. The states compete. We, qua the US, put forth teams and athletes. Isn’t it the case that collectively protesting by boycotting is a pretty effective protest tactic? Now, the argument is something like: “Forgo the collective and systematic protest to give space for individuals to protest should they so choose and btw there’s no promise that they will and even if they did we, collectively, would effectively be not protesting.”

            I really am missing something.

            • ChrisTS says:

              This, this, and this.

              I do understand the sorrow of athletes who have trained for this – possibly once in a lifetime – chance. But the US Olympians represent the US. Many of them are members of teams.

              How the hell can one be so fixated on one’s ‘dream’ as to not care about the possible abuse of one’s team members, fellow US Olympians, and attendees?

  3. Incontinentia Buttocks says:

    Glad to see that US Olympic Committee leadership is upholding its traditional commitment to putting human rights first.

  4. joe from Lowell says:

    I think Blackmun’s comments are the official line the officials have to take, and pretty obviously leavened with bullshit.

    American runner Nick Symmonds made headlines this week when he dedicated the silver medal he won in Moscow to his LGBT friends. It was the first major show of support for LGBT athletes at a Russian sporting event and has since been followed by track athletes from Sweden and other countries…

    “I know he feels strongly about this issue as many Americans do, beyond that we really don’t have any comments,” Blackmun said. “We encourage our athletes to work within Russian law, and I know Nick is trying to do that as well.”

    He’s “trying…to work within Russian law” by publicly dedicating his medal to his gay and lesbian friends?

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I think it’s pretty clear what he’s doing there.

  5. Aimai says:

    I don’t even know how you would “comply” with the Russian laws. The laws are extremely vague. I don’t think it was here,a t LGM but might have been by way of Baloon Juice but I spent a day reading down into the literature on Russian anti-homosexual laws and history. Not surprisingly we are talking at cross purposes with them. Not that they aren’t basically homophobic and religiously and biologically bigoted thanks to a pathetic, mouthbreathing, nationalistic, jingoistic, violent machismo–they are. But to the average Russian there is no difference between “homosexual” and “pedophile” so to have the US and others shouting “respect our homosexual athletes” sounds to them like “respect our pedophiles and kiddie rapists!”

    To say that they are hugely wrong is an understatement. But, nevertheless, that is what they are taught to think and that is the way they think about the situation. So to the Russian populace and the Russian Police the laws are drafted sensibly to prevent what they imagine are hordes of foreign sex tourists and kiddie rapists from gaining access to good, clean, Russian boys.

    That being the case I don’t see how the games can go forward–because the Russians are not just criminalizing actual sex acts for the duration (ok! everybody be celibate for a few months!) but are criminalizing anything that smacks of communicating about sex or love or gayness. And in the most draconian way possible.

    I don’t think the games should be boycotted because Gay Athletes and others should have to take a stand–I think the games should be ended in Russia because by definition Russia can’t guarantee the safety of any of the Atheletes or the guests or foreign staff from prosecution or non state violence thanks to Russia’s peculiar definition of homosexuality and criminality.

    • medrawt says:

      What would frighten me if I were an athlete is precisely that vagueness; I’d have to rely on the presumption that in the company of other athletes as foreign visitors under the aegis of a massive public relations event for Russia, the interpretation of the law would be relatively lenient. Because it could be otherwise. The only surefire way to avoid arrest would be, in both conduct and conversation to either pretend to be straight or asexual. For practical reasons, I assume a substantial leeway is going to be given, but nobody has actually said so explicitly or implicitly without being contradicted by someone else.

      The Olympic village has a reputation for being a free-flowing bacchanalia. What assurance other than bad publicity do athletes have that Russian police won’t be prowling the streets looking for evidence of homosexual propaganda?

  6. ChrisTS says:

    Following on aimai’s comment: How does one comply? By not being gay while in Russia?

    • Uncle Kvetch says:

      How does one comply? By not being gay while in Russia?

      No, it goes way beyond that. Expressing any opinion of homosexuality other than virulent condemnation could conceivably be viewed as pro-gay “propaganda.”

      The vagueness is a feature and not a bug, of course — the object is to terrorize people, because anything you say, or don’t say, can be used against you.

    • MAJeff says:

      Following on aimai’s comment: How does one comply? By not being gay while in Russia?

      That’s what Blatter said when confronted about FIFA giving the World Cup to Qatar.

  7. rea says:

    It’s not a matter of boycott. You simply can’t hold the Olympics in a country in which the athletes are in danger of arrest or imprisonment for their sexual orientation

  8. LeftWingFox says:

    Shall we compare with the IOC’s response to Apartheid in South Africa?

  9. Aimai says:

    This is why, with all due respect, I don’t agree with Charlie Pierce’s argument against a boycott and for “representing” and bringing the gayz and their cause to Russia. There are already gay people in Russia struggling for acceptance and a decrease in anti gay violence. I think their lead should be followed so if they want the Olympics there then by all means. That being said Russia is no slouch at manipulating public opinion and creating false impressions for their populace. The appearance of out gay athletes and the dedication of medals to gay atheletes (or family members) will have ZERO influence on the internal Russian debate because the entire country, its propaganda outlets, and the Russian legal system are extremely well defended against such appeals. In five seconds they can turn a propoganda coup (young, handsome, married gay man wins olympic medal) into a month long radio and tv rant about how the US and the West are against Russia and its purity of essence. People really, really, see what they are prepared to see and nothing more.

    • anthrofred says:

      There’s also the fact that mass support for the boycott conveniently places the US in the category of “good guys” on rights issues. It says a lot about how Westerners see themselves – and perhaps how some members of the American left want to be seen given anxieties over the very public fight over gay marriage.

    • Leeds man says:

      Let’s ask Anton Krasovsky.

      If you want to boycott Olympic games in Russia, you’re trying to boycott 7 million gay people in Russia. You want to boycott me.

      • Aimai says:

        Ok, sure, but farther down in the article this:

        LGBT Russians and tourists have been violently assaulted, harassed, and arrested for simple actions like unfurling a rainbow flag, since the national ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” took effect earlier this summer. Not every LGBT activist in Russia agrees on whether to boycott the Olympics. Some local activists are hoping to plan protests alongside the Olympics. A group called RUSA LGBT based here in the United States is advocating Olympics-related boycotts but not for athletes. Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alexeyev has decried the vodka boycott that is gathering suppor while calling for pressure directly on his country’s leaders, namely Vladimir Putin.

        But Kraskovsky’s opinion might now carry weight in the debate given his new, international platform. Back in January, Kraskovsky closed his nightly newscast with a straightforward coming-out that effectively ended his TV career in Russia.

        7 Million people can have 7 million opinions.

        This isn’t my decision to make–hell, I don’t even watch the olympics at this point because I can’t stand the coverage. But I think its wrong, as a matter of precedent, to hold the Olympics at all in countries with a massive problem treating their own citizens as equals and/or threatening criminal action against the atheletes and the tourists who come with the Olympics. Personally, I’m opposed to holding the Olympics at all in countries where women are forced to wear the Burka or not permitted to drive or vote. I’m sorry for the gay Russians but I don’t think the Olympics should be held there. Again: I’m not for a Boycott as such. I’m for shifting the Olympics entirely to another venue and then writing the next Olympics contract in such a way that the host country can’t change fundamental laws relating to the civil rights of the atheletes and tourists between accepting the job of hosting and the actual olympics.

  10. Pinko Punko says:

    I am very comfortable boycotting the Olympics. The fact that business and likely NBC’s investment in the Olympics here is the major driver of not boycotting is even more egregious. I would be sad for athletes that could not go, but someone is going to be hurt in many different social justice actions. For example, workers being hurt if an evil corporation is boycotted for some reason. Seems like a good excuse to have a blank check for anything. Not to Godwin this biz, but at what point would we not want to stage Hitler Olympics II?

    • Bijan Parsia says:

      I am very comfortable boycotting the Olympics.

      Me too.

      And isn’t the Olympics inherently political? The athletes compete for their country, as such.

      Aimai nails it above: The most important consideration (in comfort level at least) is whether the gay people of Russia want a boycott.

  11. sc says:

    pancake-flavored vodka.

  12. Warren Terra says:

    Maybe the heirs of the great Jim Thorpe can call in the massive moral debt the USOC owes them, and get that bunch to get off their collective butt and speak up for Gay rights.

    Also: there are a bunch of equivalently misplaced world sporting events, including a World Cup, and more time to get them moved.

  13. Dave says:

    So, if I’ve got this straight, Stephen Fry’s job is to agree with you?

    • Dave says:

      Aww, dammit, and that was such a good rant I was dissing.

      • anthrofred says:

        You can go find the piece it was copied from verbatim (with image captions and all!) if you still feel like replying.

        I wouldn’t have guessed this would be thread necessitating rapid deletions, but a few really ugly “anonymous” comments were swiftly moved into file 13 as well. Do the trolls have some sort of alarm set that alerts them to when The Gay Agenda pops up on LGM?

        • ChrisTS says:

          I concluded some time ago that there are ‘people’ out there who have some sort of system for finding any discussion of whatever they hate, so that they can immediately land on site and start spewing.

  14. JTR says:

    Were there ever similar calls for a boycott of China when they hosted the Olympics?

    • Aimai says:

      Does it matter? I’m pretty sure that China put its more vile political and economic issues on the down low for the duration. Its very, very, Russian to tell everyone to their face to fuck off.

      • JTR says:

        They actually ramped up their crackdown on political dissent and forcibly evicted over a million people (according to NGO estimates) in preparation for the events. Since it didn’t feed into a myopic focus on Russia in particular people just didn’t care.

        • Aimai says:

          China forcibly evicts a million people just looking inside the couch for spare change. Political crackdowns are one thing–every olympics has dealt with them and I think the consensus is that bringing foreigners in is usually a) safe for the foreigners and b) a form of gentle pushback that enables some politicla cricticism and change to occur. What is really the comparison here? Russia is more or less saying to some number of atheletes: don’t compete. Everyone else is welcome and will be safe but you. This is an ex post facto law of extreme vagueness.

        • joe from Lowell says:

          What do you mean “people just didn’t care?” The stories about creepy, totalitarian China were legion. They came out of those Olympics, which were meant to do for them what 1988 did for South Korea, with gallons of egg on their faces.

  15. Hugo says:

    These laws are very, VERY popular in Russia.

    Here’s an idea…why not STFU and let Russians decide for themselves, just as you asked Americans to do??

  16. Ronan says:

    Id be interested to hear J Otto on this if hes around, given his training in Russian history (ideally without self pitying polemics ; 0 )

  17. joe from Lowell says:

    Think about what an embarrassment the creepy, totalitarian Olympics turned out to be for China. If the USOC or George Bush had led some kind of official boycott, the story wouldn’t have been about how creepy and totalitarian China was; it would have been about the mean old American picking on China, and who are we to blah blah blah.

    Instead, the protests were unofficial, and a great deal more powerful for it. Remember the stories about the protests of the relay torch? The great journalism about the air quality and the displaced residents?

    That’s the way to do it.

    • Pinko Punko says:

      I guess. Just show them making themselves look bad? Maybe if the US went to Moscow in 80 they could have tripled the “look how rickety it all is!” “look at the lines for toilet paper!” “no ice cream!” stories.

  18. Bill Hicks says:

    The assault on homosexuals in Russia smacks of Nazism and nothing less. It is appalling, and it is already being supported by Russia’s own Olympic athletes. Russia’s current stance give succor to various other homophobic regimes around the world, and to the still powerful homophobic strain in the United States body politic. What else can we do but boycott the Winter Games? I certainly will not watch them on TV. If the US had boycotted the Olympics held in Germany during the Nazi era, Jesse Owens would not have had his medals, and Leni Reifenstahl would not have had her movie. So what. Because, essentially, of humanity’s dark side, scapegoating is always a lurking possibility. This new resurgence, in Russia, should be actively contradicted by whatever means available. Boycott the damn Winter Olympics!

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