Over the weekend an acquaintance of mine mentioned he was going to boycott watching the Olympics. He’s not someone I consider a friend, not someone I know well, but I do know him well enough to know he boycotted watching the Super Bowl too. And routinely boycotts watching ESPN. I don’t think not doing something that you would otherwise not do anyway should really be chalked up as a political statement. It kinda cheapens whatever political movement you’re supposedly supporting. It sends a message of apathy, more than displeasure, to whomever it is you’ve decided isn’t really worth making an effort over. I mean I don’t think Canada is really all that worried about my boycotting listening to Justin Bieber songs.
Back when the initial boycott movement over Russia’s anti-gay legislation began, I joined in by refusing to drink Stoli. That would have only been a problem for me if it had been instead Scotland that decided to trample over the rights of its gay citizens. Or more precisely, if the world had decided to take objection with Scotland’s practice of trampling over the rights of it gay citizens. Boycotting can be a tricky proposition. Should you boycott Utah for the mess it’s made with gay marriage, for throwing money at opponents of same-sex marriage across the country, for printing a simple checkbox on its tax forms to indicate you want State funds to go toward keeping the gays from marrying? You should. But then if you’ve ever been to Utah, you’d know how easy boycotting that state can be. There’s a reason we gave that territory to the Mormons.
Deciding what you should do about the Olympics is a bit trickier. A total boycott – where the U.S. refused to send its athletes – as a political movement never really had legs. Those who should have been instrumental in getting that movement off the ground were too drunk from not imbibing so much Stoli. It doesn’t help that those we may consider boycotting have been so illusive and difficult to pin down.
The IOC initially said it would not tolerate any political acts or statements by athletes as they are prohibited by the Olympic charter. Now they say that they have no control over what an athlete might say during an after-event press conference, so the field is wide open. At least for those who the press wants to talk to because they won a medal. Assuming that during that shining moment that validates their entire athletic career when asked the riveting question all journalists fall back on, “Tell us how you’re feeling right now,” they remember to say, “I’m feeling sad for the way Russia treats their gays.”
Obviously, Russia said nyet to any political statements during the Games in favor of gay rights; that’s what their legislation is all about. But then Putin said those laws would not be enforced against foreign visitors. And then some other Russian said they would be. And then Putin said political statements would be banned. Then not. Then so. Maybe we need to boycott Russia over its indecisiveness and inability to make up its mind about what it is going to do about gays at the Olympics.
In a nod toward boycotting their reputation for being a totalitarian state, Russia has made at least one decision about politics at the Olympics. Even if it is more about going with historical precedence than making a decision. There will be designated areas in Sochi set aide for those who wish to speak publicly about their political beliefs. What would be called free speech zones in any other country where free speech is allowed. That’s not something the anti-anti-gay-let’s-boycott-Russia movement wants you to know about. But then neither does Russia. Those free speech zones have been located at a park in a sleepy mountain enclave some 10 miles away from the Olympic media center and major sports venues. Which is what I mean about historical precedence. Russia has always had designated areas far removed from the masses for their citizens who wish to speak out against the government. In the past, they’ve been called gulags.
At least, with less than a week to go, they finally decided what to do with the humongous stray dog population that calls Sochi their home. The Russian bear has decided said dogs are ‘biological trash’ and will be ‘culling’ the population. ‘Culling’ used to be called a pogrom in old Russia. But they’ve boycotted using that word. Which must be reassuring to all the puppies they plan on killing over the next few days. We should just be glad Russia has decided gays are simply ‘unnatural’ rather than biological trash. Like in Nigeria. By the way, Nigeria is boycotting the Sochi Games. As it has every Winter Olympics. Just like my acquaintance is boycotting watching NBC during primtetime over the next few weeks.
Everyone waving rainbow flags during the Games was an early idea for a mass political statement in favor of gay rights. Then Russia co-opted that symbol by incorporating rainbows into its uniform being worn by Olympic staff and volunteers and plastering rainbow all over the venues. Having same-sex athletes holding each other hands while marching into the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies was another idea put forth. But then Tom Daley co-opted that idea by holding Dustin Lance Black’s hand in public. There’s the anti-anti-gay-anti-Olympic-torch that’ been lit in at Berlin at Potsdamer Platz, but its organizers forgot to co-opt supporters’ bank accounts and it looks like The Rainbow Flame will be extinguished a bit early due to lack of funds. Ari-Pekka Liukkonen, an Olympic swimmer from Finland, came out over the weekend to “raise awareness of Russia’s anti-gay laws,” but as commendable as his decision to be open about his sexuality may be, that’s about a summer games Olympian trying to co-opt the spotlight of the winter games Olympians. Not to mention it’s only Finland.
We’re supposed to boycott large, corporate Olympic sponsors like Procter & Gamble, McDonald’s, and Coke. Even though we should already be boycotting McDonald’s for selling a product that will kill you. And as much as you may enjoy boycotting my ability to say I told you so, Coke just responded to the anti-anti-gay backlash by airing a commercial that featured a gay family during the Super Bowl telecast, a commercial we’d have never seen if i wasn’t for Russia’s anti-gay legislation and the brouhaha that’s caused over the Olympics. As much as the world wants its displeasure with Russia known and broadcast, no one can agree what form that political statement should take. But the Australians may have hit on the perfect answer. Even if it has been co-opted from the civil right movement of the ‘60s.
MLK, quite deservedly, got lots of press and accolades for his freedom marches through the South, his I Have A Dream speech at The March on Washington, and for preaching a non-violent approach to civil disobedience (which, for the record, he co-opted from Gandhi). But a much more iconic image of the civil rights movement, one still immediately recognized around the world, is that of three Olympians standing silently during the playing of the U.S. national anthem, two with fists raised during a medal ceremony at the Mexico City Games in 1968. All three wore Olympic Project for Human Rights badges on their jackets. It was a political message heard around the world. And its effectiveness was due to its simplicity and dignity. It wasn’t about waving flags, competing non-official-Olympic flames, rainbows, or lowering the U.S. medal count by a boycott by black athletes.
Those with racism in their hearts like to claim that Olympic moment was about black power. It wasn’t. It was about civil rights. It was about the simple human right of dignity. It was about equality. And one of those three Olympians was white. And an Australian. That memorable act was about co-opting their personal celebration of victory and the culmination of years of hard work, sacrifice, and training in favor of standing up for one’s convictions. And not because it was the popular issue of the day. It wasn’t. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd. In that light, refusing to order a round of a popular brand of vodka as a political statement sounds kinda silly now doesn’t it?
The Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from making political statements. Even when it is the right thing to do. In response to their actions, the IOC ordered the two black Olympians, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, suspended from the U.S. team and banned from the Olympic Village. They were both expelled from the Games. Back in the U.S., they were subjected to abuse, were largely ostracized by the American sporting establishment, and they and their families received death threats. Peter Norman, the third man on the podium, was reprimanded by his country’s Olympic committee and made a pariah by the Australian media. Despite having qualified 13 times over, he was not selected for Munich Olympics of 1972 and was not feted in 2000 – as his fellow Olympian medalists were – when Sydney hosted the Olympics in 2000.
For their act of Olympic disobedience, all three men suffered both professionally and in their personal lives. It is telling that it took the IOC almost 40 years to add anti-discrimination language to its charter, thereby validating Smith, Carlos, and Norman’s convictions. But high words cast a long shadow over low deeds. When it comes to the IOC, it is even more telling that rather than recognize the fundamental correctness of those Olympian’s actions in Mexico City, the official IOC website still states that “Over and above winning medals, the black American athletes made names for themselves by an act of racial protest.” It’s no wonder that it also believes the Russian anti-gay legislation does not violate the Olympic charter. Maybe they’ll change their mind by 2054.
Akaash Maharaj, a member of the Canadian Olympic Committee, summed up the event and it aftermath best, “In that moment, Tommie Smith, Peter Norman, and John Carlos became the living embodiments of Olympic idealism. Ever since, they have been inspirations to generations of athletes like myself, who can only aspire to their example of putting principle before personal interest. It was their misfortune to be far greater human beings than the leaders of the IOC of the day.”
Whatever form of protest individual athletes or spectators choose at Sochi, they should remember it is not just about Russia’s current pogrom against homosexuals. It is about the inequality suffered by the LGBT community the world over. It’s popular to despise Putin for his homophobia these days, but that’s a lot of stones being thrown by those who live in glass houses. How can you legitimately ridicule Russia for its laws against propagandizing homosexuality when your own country refuses to allow its gay citizens to marry? Or allows them to be fired from their jobs for no other reason than that they love someone of the same sex?
It’s nice that they will be lighting The Rainbow Flame in Berlin, but maybe the Germans should first make same-sex marriage legal in their country rather than only allow their gay citizens to enter into civil partnerships. And maybe the U.S. courts currently hearing cases involving same-sex marriage should recognize that considering granting exemptions based on religious beliefs is nothing more than codifying bigotry and inequality. When the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted, the Mormon church was not given a pass just because the church taught that black people carried the mark of Cain (i.e. their “flat nose and black skin”), a racist belief promoted by church leaders until 1978.
John Carlos, one of the three Olympians who participated in that emphatic show of support for civil and human rights at the Mexico City Games recently spoke on the issue “We should try to remember, regardless of what your ethnic background is, or what your sexual preference is, or what type of food you like, it doesn’t matter. It just matters that we all have the right to be who we are in this society. And we need to keep fighting to make sure that there’s an even playing field for all people that are being oppressed,” he said.
Emulating those three Olympians’ example of putting principle before personal interest is probably the right answer of what to do in regard to Russia’s stance against its gay citizens. It’s nice that the gay rights movement is getting so much press thanks to the Sochi Games, but what even gay rights supporters need to recognize is that it is not just a gay rights issue, it’s an issue of civil rights. And equality. It’s about human rights. Acts of civil disobedience and protest at Sochi should not be merely viewed a support for gay rights. Or as four-time U.S. figure skating national champion Jeremy Abbott put it after securing a spot on the men’s figure skating team, “I don’t care what people assume about me, whether or not I am gay or straight. Ultimately I think it has no bearing on the conversation. I’m an ally and I believe everyone should be supportive of human rights.”
As for what athletes risk by speaking out at Sochi, speaking from personal experience, Carlos said, “They’re going to risk condemnation. They’re going to ridicule him in the early stages, until society wakes up and realizes that the individual is right and had a right to speak out for the issues that concern his life as well as so many others.”
Or will if whatever form of demonstration they take is limited to but a few Olympians. Recognizing that the issue is broader than just its gay rights context, however, could result in such a unified show of support that the IOC – who earlier this year said it would enforce Rule 50 for even simple acts such as carrying a rainbow flag or wearing a rainbow pin – finds itself unable to take action against those Olympian who choose principle over personal interest. And Belle Brockhoff, the Australian snowboarding Olympian who came out back in August as a show of solidarity with her fellow gay and lesbian athletes, may have hit on the right form for making a statement in support of human rights.
“The Australian Olympic Committee has been really supportive and they want me to be safe,” she says. “They don’t recommend me waving a rainbow flag around which I won’t do. The most I’ll do is hold up six fingers to represent Principle Six.”
The Principle Six campaign was formed by two nonprofits: Athlete Ally and All Out. In the preamble to the Olympic Charter, under the heading of Fundamental Principles of Olympism, principle #6 states: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”. The Principle Six campaign is devoted to making the IOC live up to the dictates of its own governing documents.
The campaign already has the support of over 50 Olympic athletes, including runner Nick Symmonds, diver Greg Louganis, the Lakers’ Steve Nash, and tennis star Andy Roddick. It is also an official sponsor of the Australian men’s bobsled team and its logo appears on the sleds the team will use in Sochi. A stadium full of rainbow flags being waved is a nice idea. But then so is the Games going back to its roots and having the athletes compete in the nude. But medalist after medalist after medalist taking to the podium to stand silently with six finger raised would have a much greater, and more dignified impact. And a united front from all Olympians in support of forcing the Olympics to stand against discrimination of any kind would make it difficult for the IOC to react against. It may even force them to do the right thing.
American Apparel has teamed up with Athlete Ally and All Out to produce a line of clothing in support of the Principle Six campaign. Yeah, I know. But I’d even stoop as low as to support Starbucks if their corporate heart was in the right place. And all proceeds from the sale of their clothing are going to the Principle Six campaign anyway. Boycotting the Games by not watching the broadcast that you weren’t going to watch in the first place, or turning off your TV for two minutes during the commercial break so the sponsors lose out on money as some have suggested – like you weren’t gonna head to the fridge during the break anyway, or ordering a cosmo instead of a shot of Stoli, may all sound like good ideas to show your displeasure with Russia and the IOC’s refusal to champion gay rights, but the act of picking up a new T-shirt to help a global campaign in support of human rights is a better one.
It’s a positive action of support rather than a negative action that will have little impact. And if you have to tie the gay rights issue into it, buy one for some hottie you’ve been drooling over. And then have fun taking it off of him. ‘Cuz that’s not what Putin would do.