Gold medal for attendance

Boycotting the Sochi Olympics won’t force Russia to change its policies

The Olympics should be about athletes coming together, rather than politicians making a point.
The Olympics should be about athletes coming together, rather than politicians making a point.
Photo: 

Justin Mathews, ArtSci ’14

There has been a frenzy for Canada (and the US) to boycott the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, in protest over laws that ban “homosexual propaganda”. As rightly outraged as these activists are, and as noble a pursuit this may seem, boycotting the Olympic Games won’t improve Russia’s stance on homosexuality, or any policy of any state for that matter, that we happen to disagree with.

Russian-American gay artist Slava Mogutin argues countries ought to boycott the Winter Games because “Russia’s recent anti-gay legislation contradicts the letter and spirit of the Olympic Charter” and to proceed with business as usual is to “de facto endorse the growing homophobia in Russia”.

As compelling as this sounds, the idea that to participate equates to “de facto endorsement” is absurd. The Olympics have a long history of threatened boycotts, with reasons ranging from China’s pollution or relationship with Tibet, to Canada’s own caricaturing of our First Nations and the gentrification of downtown Vancouver.

It seems both bizarre and perhaps ill-informed to suggest Sweden’s participation in Canada’s Winter Olympics is an endorsement of gentrification, or Haiti’s participation in the 2010 Beijing Games implied the endorsement of China’s treatment of Tibet.

History also demonstrates that boycotting the Olympics has never been an effective instrument of foreign policy. The US-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the resultant Soviet-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics were both unavailing ― the war in Afghanistan continued unsullied for a decade, while Cold War tensions between the countries were exacerbated.

Even boycott efforts made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have proved fruitless. In 1964, the IOC withdrew its invitation to South Africa in response to its apartheid policies. In 1968, it readmitted South Africa, on the condition that their athletes would sit, eat and travel together ― regardless of race. Later, adopting a formal stance against apartheid in sport, the IOC formally expelled South Africa in 1970 and yet South Africa’s era of racist legislation endured another 24 years without change.

I want to do more than just reject boycotting as an inefficient means for political action in international sport. I also want to highlight two things: Boycotts can often do more harm than good, and achieving social ends is possible with avid participation, instead of absence.

When Moscow chose to sit out in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the US won 176 overall medals, an incredible record, second only to 1980 Moscow Olympics, where Russia captured 190 medals in the US absence. This neatly illustrates that it’s often the host country that’s the biggest beneficiary of a boycott. Not only does the “activist” country lose the space it could have used to criticize, but it also removes its opportunity to pose a competitive threat. In short, boycotting Olympic Games relegates countries from formidable competitors to sideline spectators.

Patrick Burke, the co-founder of the You Can Play Project writes, “In 1968, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar refused to play in the Olympics as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America. The same year, Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on a medal stand, gloved fists in the air, as a protest against the treatment of blacks in America.” History values the athletes at the forefront of the fight.

The 2014 Sochi Olympic Games should be no different. A boycott silences the effort to convey any message to the host country, and delivers a boon ― in this case, the absence of athletes at the Games ― to the host country. We fare better where our gay athletes participate rightly, as equals.

Most importantly, our focus should divert to pressuring our political representatives who actively engage with Russia and other countries that have policies that are fundamentally opposed to our own. In Canadian society, people don’t serve their government, but our government certainly serves its people. Come February, countries like Canada that are supportive of gay rights ought to step up ― not step out.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.