I'm all for boycotts. They can be powerful, bold and can make a real impact on the world, but in the case of the 2014 Sochi Olympics, it could do more harm than good.
What's happening in Russia shakes me to my core. After Putin passed a bill outlawing "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations," he basically made homosexuality a crime. Anyone who promotes homosexuality in the presence of minors faces fines or imprisonment under the new legislation. Kissing a person of the same sex in public or waving a rainbow flag have become acts that are punishable by law. Even saying that you are proud to be gay in the presence of minors could land you in trouble with the law. That's goes way beyond discrimination. It's in to the realm of cruelty.
Although we should absolutely contest and protest Russia's war on gays, a boycott of the Olympics isn't the most effective way of accomplish that. Cold War-type Olympic boycotts have rarely been effective in the past. We tried to snub the Russian Olympics to protest their invasion of Afghanistan in 1980, but they refused to flinch and continued to occupy the territory for four more years. Why would this year be any different?
More than ineffective, a boycott is detrimental to athletes. Whether they are gay or straight, most have been working their entire lives for this moment, and they are now being asked to sacrifice it. For most, the Olympics is spectacle; for athletes, it is so much more. It’s their career. It’s their dream. It’s the culmination of years of work, a purposeful life.
Instead of punishing gay athletes, we should be ensuring their safety. We should be putting our efforts and protests into demanding that an international body ensure the well-being of LGBTQ athletes, staff and spectators during the Russian Games. Governments need to stand together and come up with an action plan to protect the lives of all LGBTQ athletes and tourists.
Although the International Olympic Committee (IOC) maintains that the law wouldn’t be enforced, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko is claiming that it would be impossible to suspend a bill that’s already been signed into law. That's insanely worrying. It's the IOC's responsibility to condemn the law and uphold reasonable safety standards for all athletes. That's exactly what pro-gay organizations like Athlete Ally are doing with a global petition urging the IOC to come forward with an actionable plan.
U.S. lawmakers have sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry expressing their concern over the safety of Americans. "Russia’s record of anti-LGBT legislation and persecution pose serious concerns for the safety of LGBT Sochi Olympic participants and spectators,” the letter reads. Although the eighty members of congress who signed off on this request are taking a step in the right direction, there should be a global coalition ensuring the safety of all LGBTQ athletes, regardless of their country of origin. President Obama has recently added his voice to the chorus of world leaders who have expressed vehement opposition to the legislation.
"[I have] no patience for countries that try to treat gays or lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them," President Obama told Jay Leno Tuesday night. "And if Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people's sexual orientation shouldn't have anything to do with it." the president continued.
If we paid attention to the voices of LGBTQ athletes, we would realize that those who have spoken out have largely disagreed with the boycott. Openly gay Olympic speed skater Blake Skjellerup from New Zealand is one of them: "I and the other athletes have worked very, very hard and to have that taken away from you would be truly devastating," he said.
Moreover, he believes his presence at the Olympics is important: "I’m going to go there and be myself and I think that’s a huge show of support and a statement in itself." Skjellerup thinks his participation sends a stronger message than a boycott. "I’m an out gay man and I’m going to a country where it’s basically illegal to be gay,” he said, "I think that’s a huge show of support in itself. I don’t know what greater thing I could do."
"I believe in visibility. I believe it’s much more important to be there in Russia, to show our support for the LGBT people of Russia and to know that we are there, and we are in support of them, and that we’re doing our best, I guess, to try to make things better for them in their country,” the athlete continued.
Skjellerup is planning on sporting a gay-pride pin during the Olympics even if there’s a risk he could be deported for it. Won't a gay athlete literally wearing pride on his sleeve send a more powerful message than stopping him from participating in the competition in the first place? Gay athletes of the world are sending a powerful message to Russia and its homophobic leaders. They will not be scared off. Will you stand with them?