Alex de Waal

Alex de Waal

The British actor and writer Stephen Fry, who is gay, has caused a storm by demanding that the Winter Olympics be moved elsewhere or boycotted, because of recent Russian legislation criminalizing “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”

      Better than a boycott: theater in the snow of the world’s biggest stage. Don’t get into a power struggle with an autocrat—use the power of mockery. A tyrant who can withstand any amount of political opposition can be undone by jokes.

      The Russian law is outrageous. Under the pretext of protecting children, it prohibits a broad sweep of personal and public activities and—perhaps more importantly—gives a green light to homophobics to attack gay people. According to Katie Halper of Policymic, “The law imposes significant fines of up to $31,000 for providing information about the LGBT community to minors, holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships. In a truly egalitarian and internationalist spirit, the bill applies to Russians and foreigners alike, as well as media organizations.” Russia was already one of the world’s more homophobic countries, and parliamentary discussion of this law—which began in January—has reportedly led to an upsurge in violence and intolerance against LGBTs. Fry compares holding the games in Sochi to the 1936 Munich Olympics, which gave Adolf Hitler a platform.

      Fry has put the issue of Russian homophobia in the spotlight. But is a boycott the right way to go? There’s some useful history to this issue: some sporting boycotts have worked, others have only hurt athletes.

      In the case of Apartheid South Africa, the exclusion of the country from the Olympics began with a campaign by domestic activists such as Dennis Brutus, and the wider ban on participation in world sport was partly sparked when South Africa refused to let the colored cricketer Basil D’Oliveira play in a touring English national side, leading to the English cricket team refusing to play in South Africa. Exclusion from international sport was deeply felt among white South Africans and was an effective statement that Apartheid consigned that country to pariah status. One reason why this campaign worked was the clear contradiction between racial discrimination and the principle of individual equality on the sporting field.

     By contrast, the 1980 U.S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics—as a gesture in response to the invasion of Afghanistan—had little impact other than damaging athletes’ careers. The general popular sentiment was, “keep politics out of sport.” The efforts by Darfur campaigners to brand the Beijing Olympics of 2008 “the genocide Olympics” because of China’s support for the Sudanese government, made too remote a connection between the games and the violations in question, to gain wider support.

      At this stage it will be very hard to muster the political will to boycott or shift the games. The International Olympic Committee is famously cumbersome and conservative. That doesn’t mean it is not worth trying to influence them—or their sponsors, which are likely to be more susceptible to pressure.

     Two lessons from the history of human rights activism are relevant.

     One: what does the gay community in Russia want their international friends and supporters to do? Whatever good ideas international campaigners may have, it’s important to support what the Russian LGBT community wants. It’s their lives and their country and whatever others do should be guided by them.

      Two: don’t underestimate the power of symbolic protest. The Winter Olympics is a fabulous world stage and the authorities can’t script what happens there. Remember the black power salute at the 1968 Summer Olympics by American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos? The IOC banned the two athletes for a supposedly unwarranted “political action.” It would be hard to do the same if hundreds of athletes from many countries were to make comparable gestures.

      It’s asking a lot for athletes to become activists. But the very principle of competitive athletics—that individuals compete on the basis of ability alone, without discrimination on the basis of race, gender or sexual orientation—is under challenge. The more who are ready to make a stand, even in minor ways such as wearing rainbow colors and embracing their fellow competitors, the stronger will be the message.

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