Ugly pictures of a young man, beaten and bloody, have emerged from Russia in recent weeks. Terrified, he is surrounded by shaven-headed men, gloating at their work. In May, it was reported that a 23-year old man was horrifically tortured and killed in the city of Volgograd.
Their offence is to be gay in Russia. Homosexuality was banned in the 1920s. Gays were regularly made scapegoats for the country’s ills. Though legalised in 1993, Russian society is fiercely homophobic. The country also has a reputation for thuggish behaviour. It is home to large numbers of far-right supporters, and Russian democracy is of the autocratic flavour.
Many blame the surge in homophobic attacks in the country on the June passage of a law banning public discussion of homosexuality. Purportedly, it is to protect children. The real impetus is the political insecurity of Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin. A shaky re-election in 2012 has led him to shore up support with the deeply conservative Russian Orthodox Church.
Last week, Stephen Fry, the actor and broadcaster, focused international attention on the matter. In an open letter to political and Olympic leaders, he called for “An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics.” He compared the situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia today with that facing Jews in Germany ahead of the 1936 Olympics. Echoing history, Fry declared that Russia was “making scapegoats of gay people.” He demanded that the Olympics be held anywhere but in Sochi.
Putin championed Russia’s Winter Olympics bid as a demonstration of the country’s international muscle. Yet, as China discovered ahead of the Beijing Games in 2008, hosting the Olympics highlights both the strengths and the shortcomings of a host country.
If not a new location for the Games, argued some, then at least a boycott. Some gay rights organisations backed calls for a boycott. Others, including gay athletes, suggested that a boycott would be ineffective; the aim, they argued, should be to improve the situation for gays and lesbians in Russia. All Out, an international gay-rights advocacy group, handed over a petition with 320,000 signatures to the IOC calling for the laws to be repealed.
Calls for the Games to be moved ignore reality while calls for a boycott are misguided. Olympic Games are a small industry, with billions of dollars at stake. Long legal battles would follow should the IOC not honour its contract with 2014 hosts, Sochi, a sleepy city almost as close to Tehran as to Moscow.
And the simple fact is that boycotts rarely work. The last Olympics on Russian soil, the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, were boycotted by sixty-five countries. A response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, it had no impact on Soviet foreign policy. The only tangible outcome: a reverse boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games by Soviet-bloc countries.
Several countries share Russia’s attitudes on homosexuality and would be unlikely to join a boycott over gay rights. And, rather than provoking positive change for gays and lesbians, the more likely response is a hardening of attitudes. Putin would use it to his advantage. Boycotting Sochi over gay rights in specific also raises the question of why no boycott of Beijing over human rights in general?
Several gay Olympians rejected a call for gay athletes to boycott the Games. A self-imposed boycott by gay athletes would do nothing but deny them the opportunity to participate in the Games. It smacks of defeatism. It isstyle over substance.
Public opinion in the West aims to pressure Olympic sponsors and the IOC into challenging discrimination. But, instead of strategic cul-de-sacs, those who seek change in Russia should be calling for action that can make a difference.
Changing attitudes, and laws, takes time. It requires focused and dedicated effort, and it requires working with people. Barriers are dismantledand discrimination is challenged through personal contact. The lack of openly gay role models is a problem in Russia.
The IOC says that gay athletes will be protected from the anti-propaganda laws during the Olympics. It should test that. Every gay athlete willing to travel to Russia between now and February should do so, armed with a rainbow flag. They should embark on a programme of educational visits to Chabarovsk, Tolyatti, Petrozavodsk and to as many other cities outside of Moscow and Sochi as possible. And it should be organised by the IOC and Olympic sponsors.
That gay athletes will be immune from discriminatory laws during the Olympics is not enough. It belittles the everyday situation facing gays and lesbians in Russia. As Fry noted, Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter states that the IOC must “Act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” Here is an opportunity to turn the often soaring rhetoric of international sports into making a real difference to people’s lives.