Why we should not boycott the Sochi Olympics

Nick Richardson thinks a boycott misses the mark

Olympics cartoon - Beck Kim for web
Drawing: Rebecca Kim

If you’re gay in Russia your life is probably pretty shit. 74% of the population does not accept homosexual activity and nearly half the population is in favour of making homosexual acts between consensual adults a crime. It is a place where police and authorities turn a blind eye to violence and discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender Russians.

However, calls for a boycott of 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are reactionary and short-sighted.

First of all, the efficacy of the boycott as a tool for social change must be questioned. There is little doubt that some boycotts have had resounding success. Martin Luther King and Ghandi both used the boycott to brilliant effect in their respective liberation struggles. However, as University of Pennsylvania academics Scott Rosner and Deborah Low write in their paper on the efficacy of boycotts in evoking political and economic change, the most successful boycotts in history hurt corporations and governments an their hip pocket. Boycotts without economic damage do not have the same effect. The Jewish boycott of German-made products during World War II financially crippled German industry. If we are going to sanction Russia for their poor human rights record, we must hurt them economically otherwise there is little point.

Secondly, as draconian as these laws are and as unapologetically vile as Vladimir Putin is, it is all a little bit arbitrary, isn’t it? There is little relationship between gay and lesbian rights in Russia and the Olympics. What would actually be achieved by a boycott? According to Rosner and Low, “whilst a nation can successfully carry out an ideological protest by boycotting the games, the accomplishment of any more substantive gain is far more difficult to achieve… there are limited benefits compared to the costs.” In other words, whilst a boycott might express the world’s disgust at Russia’s treatment of their own citizens, it has little chance of actually inciting any social change. Sochi would be abandoned, the Olympics held elsewhere, and gays and lesbians would continue to be victimised by a hostile Russian public.

Thirdly, and most importantly, I refer to the infamous black power salute of the 1968 Olympics. Tommie Smith and John Carlos, fists raised pointedly in the air, is not only one of the most enduring images in sports history but is something seared deeply in Western cultural consciousness. Imagine if a statement of that magnitude was made in Russia – a gay or lesbian athlete defying Russia’s oppressive climate and standing tall on the dais collecting a gold medal. How much more enduring, how much more powerful, and how much cooler is that than a petty boycott?

Real social change does not come from stamping your feet and throwing your toys around the nursery like a spoilt child. We are doing every single gay and lesbian athlete a disservice if we do not allow them to give Russia the ultimate ‘fuck you’ – we played your games and we beat you.

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