The opening ceremony for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia is tonight. I will not be watching.
I love the Winter Olympics. I think I love them even more than I love the Summer Olympics. I love downhill skiing, and ski jump (featuring, for the first time and in a way overdue move, WOMEN). I love speed skating (Bonnie Blair, HELLO!). I love figure skating. There’s nothing like nailing a triple lutz. Figure skating is just captivating. So often in my life the female figure skating champion has been the face of the Winter Games. When someone does the routine of their lives, you just know. It is mesmerizing. And CURLING! I really, really like curling. Ooh and bobsledding!
Some of my favorite Winter Olympians from my youth. Clockwise from top left: Michelle Kwan, Picabo Street, Kristi Yamaguchi, Bonnie Blair.
All of these things, and more which I will discuss, make my decision to boycott the Sochi Olympics an incredibly difficult one.
By now our readers probably have at least a cursory knowledge of the issue. In June 2013 Russia passed a law prohibiting “gay propaganda,” punishible with jail time. This term is meant to be construed broadly; examples include public displays of affection between members of the same sex, gay rights protests and demonstrations, public assertions of being gay or being a gay ally and of course any institutionalized equality for gay people. The main impetus for the rule is to protect Russian minors (which I don’t need to tell you likens gay people to pedophiles and completely erases Russian minors who are themselves gay), but one can seemingly be jailed for being or being perceived as gay, or being openly supportive of gay people and gay rights whether or not minors are involved or not.
The IOC’s Charter lists 7 “Fundamental Principles of Olympism.” This sixth states:
Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.
Nevertheless, the Olympics are about to begin in a place where someone was arrested for holding a rainbow flag during the Olympic Torch relay; in a country where the President says that the gay visitors should “leave the children alone please“; in a town where the Mayor says “We do not have them in our city” (despite the fact that Sochi had been a resort town for gay Russians due to an archaic single-sex lodging law and has a gay nightclub that puts on drag shows); and most horrifyingly, in a place where there has been an incredible amount of violence directed at gay people.
It doesn’t matter to me that Russia was selected to host these games years before the law passed, in 2007. Although the Olympics is supposed to be an apolitical event, it seems to me that the IOC (and other international sporting organizations like FIFA) very often picks countries that the Western world is contemporaneously trying to bring into its fold. Well maybe the Committee should stop doing that. Or maybe it should, at the very very least, condone the host country for passing a horrible, bigoted law less than a year before hosting the Olympics.
But the IOC has not done that. That IOC has done nothing. Huge American corporate sponsors, such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Visa, GE and others, have done nothing. No one in a position to influence the situation did anything. To me this is utter cowardice.
But I can’t very well say that and then not practice responsible consumerism myself. I will not watch the opening ceremony tonight, where Russia showcased its achievements to the world. And I will not watch any of the events.
It will be hard not to support the athletes, who are able to compete on a global stage so few times in their careers. Harder still will be to turn away from the six openly gay athletes, who compete at a risk to themselves. I can understand why people will watch even though they oppose Russia’s law; to me not supporting the athletes was a really hard part of this decision.
There are some things about America’s response of which I am very proud. I love that the U.S. delegation does not include President Obama, or Michelle Obama, or anyone from the President’s or Vice-President’s staffs. I love that it includes three openly-gay athletes, one of whom — Brian Boitano — came out after he was selected and because of the circumstances surrounding his selection. I understand why the U.S. government can’t boycott the games (indeed, our Navy is in the Black Sea as I type…), but I think the people we are sending sends a strong message about our government and (the majority of) our people’s ideals.
I’m also happy that a few sponsors of the USOC have spoken out about Russia’s law. This week, AT&T blogged:
On Friday night, many of us will be tuned in to the 2014 Olympic Winter Games opening ceremony.
It’s an event that symbolizes peace and unity amongst nations. It’s also a moment for us to express our pride in America and everything for which it stands.
AT&T has stood proudly with Team USA at every Olympic opening ceremony since 1984 in Los Angeles. As a Proud Partner of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Team for the past 30 years, we’ve showcased American athletes and celebrated their diversity all around the world. For these games, we’re shining a light on some of the hard work and dedication that goes into training for the Olympics, and asking fans to showcase their American pride by uploading U-S-A chants through our free #ItsOurTime app.
The Olympic Games in Sochi also allow us to shine a light on a subject that’s important to all Americans: equality. As you may know, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community around the world is protesting a Russian anti-LGBT law that bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” To raise awareness of the issue, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) has called on International Olympic Committee (IOC) sponsors to take action and stand up for LGBT equality.
AT&T is not an IOC sponsor, so we did not receive the HRC request. However, we are a long-standing sponsor of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), we support HRC’s principles and we stand against Russia’s anti-LGBT law.
AT&T has a long and proud history of support for the LGBT community in the United States and everywhere around the world where we do business. We support LGBT equality globally and we condemn violence, discrimination and harassment targeted against LGBT individuals everywhere. Russia’s law is harmful to LGBT individuals and families, and it’s harmful to a diverse society.
We celebrate the diversity of all Olympic athletes, their fans, Russian residents and all people the world over – including and, especially, our employees and their loved ones.
As the games begin, we’re here to support and inspire American athletes who’ve worked hard and sacrificed much to achieve their dreams. We also want to be on record with our support for the LGBT community, and we hope that others involved with the Olympic Games will do the same.
Go Team USA! #ItsOurTime.
Since then, Chobani and DeVry University also have released statements opposing the law and supporting LGBT equality. I just wish there were more, and they’d done it earlier.
Google (not an Olympic sponsor)’s homepage this week. Clicking on the image takes you to an Olympic Charter search.
Many other athletes, from Greg Louganis to Martina Navratilova to Mikhail Baryshnikov have openly criticized Russia, the IOC, or have otherwise shown support for LGBT rights.
I hope that there are courageous people in Sochi who will use this as an opportunity to stand up for principles of equality, dignity and human rights. The Olympics is a place for that after all.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their fists for civil rights at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Read Carlos’s great Q&A with the Nation about Sochi here.
I want to say to the IOC and to America’s corporate sponsors: if you’re supporting this I’m not supporting you. I know I’m just one person, and I won’t drastically change the ratings that this Olympics gets. But every vote counts, right? Tonight, I’m voting with my thumb, and you should too.
[I would be remiss if I did not plug the blog Towleroad, whom I've linked to so many times in this post and where I've gotten nearly all -- if not entirely all -- of my news on the subject. Thank you for your comprehensive coverage! -Lydia]