Earlier this summer, talk of an Olympic boycott due to Russia’s anti-gay laws could be measured in whispers. In the last two weeks those few quiet voices have grown into a chorus. Yet the calls for a boycott continue to be misdirected.
Olympic boycotts don’t accomplish anything. They never have and they never will. When the United States and its allies boycotted the 1980 Moscow Games, the Soviets didn’t leave Afghanistan in response. Instead they dug in deeper, returning the favor four years later by boycotting the Summer Games in Los Angeles.
Yet, just months before the boycotts began, the United States beat the Soviets and won hockey gold in Lake Placid—remembered as one of the greatest sports moments in American history. Why? Because the athletes were allowed to compete.
Like boycotting a British-owned vodka because it has a Russian name, nations choosing to stay home for the Olympics only hurt hard-working young athletes, not Vladimir Putin. Some say that the Americans’ decision to participate in the 1936 Berlin Games gave “legitimacy” to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. If you think a boycott of those Games would have stopped the Jewish genocide in Germany or the launch of World War II, I have a wall in Berlin to sell you.
Thankfully these anti-boycott messages, delivered by fans and athletes in the last week, have hit home: The calls for a boycott may be subsiding.
Yet the desire—the need—to make a statement in Russia is heating up. While the Olympic Games are designed to be free of politics, there are times when the world must collectively stand up for human rights. This is one of those times.
Despite the calls for public protest by athletes at the Games, there’s a harsh reality we have to contend with. Athletes, coaches and fans looking to make a statement about Russian anti-gay laws don’t just have Russian law to worry about: The Olympic charter forbids these kinds of statements.
“No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” the Charter’s Rule 50 reads.
We saw the repercussions of the rule in 1968. When American 200-meter dash medal winners Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their fists in the air on the podium—a Black Power Salute—it was an iconic Olympics moment. What seems lost to history was the subsequent disqualification of the two athletes by the IOC and their removal from the Olympic village.
If an athlete walks into the Opening Ceremony carrying a rainbow flag, as some have called for, he will be disqualified from participation and faces bans from subsequent Olympic Games.
Instead of asking athletes, coaches and fans to risk disqualification, arrest or worse in Sochi, Russia this winter, it’s time for the IOC itself to take a stand.
First, the IOC needs to give a pass to political statements made by Olympic athletes next year in opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws, and it need assurances from the Russian government that those statements will not elicit arrest. In 2008, IOC president Jacques Rogge did just that in China over the issue of Tibet.
"For us, freedom of expression is something that is absolute. It's a human right," Rogge said as he announced that athletes would be given opportunities to speak about Tibet. The IOC needs to create similar opportunities for dialog in Sochi and ensure athletes’ safety to engage.
More importantly, the IOC must ban Russia from participating in these Olympics so long as it is in clear violation of the Olympic Charter.
“The practice of sport is a human right,” the charter reads. “Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
Telling athletes they must suppress their identity is not “in the Olympic spirit.” Arresting same-sex couples for holding hands on the street is far from the “spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”
Think a Russian ban is crazy? There’s precedent for it. In 1964, the IOC banned South Africa from participating in the Olympic Games because of apartheid in that nation. The ban remained in force for 28 years, until apartheid ended.
Let Russia, as host, watch the games from the sidelines as 200 other nations slide across the ice in Sochi.
Meanwhile, the IOC must create opportunities for athletes, coaches and fans to speak out about the anti-gay laws in Russia before and during their participation in these Games.