There was a time when people dared to hope that Russia was evolving into a more open society. Mikhail Gorbachev, a man who deserves history’s gratitude, first opened the floodgates of Glasnost – until the reforms of Perestroika ran away faster than he could control and the Soviet Union was disbanded. A culture of openness continued under Boris Yeltsin, under whom consensual same-sex acts were decriminalized. But the vacuum caused by Yeltsin’s incompetence and ill health led to former KGB head Vladimir Putin taking control – promising law and order. He apparently intends to remain in power for life, and has become as autocratic as any Russian leader since Stalin. Thus, while former countries in the Soviet sphere, most notably the Czech Republic, embrace openness and tolerance, Russia has been moving backwards and appears destined to become a Christian version of Iran.
Many in the LGBT community have called for the United States and other LGBT friendly nations to boycott the2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. Leaving aside the question as to whether the United States deserves to be called an LGBT welcoming nation, history has already demonstrated that a boycott would be a mistake. I understand why individual LGBT athletes would want to boycott the games – either out of principle or due to concerns for their own safety. But boycotts by nations would do nothing to advance the causes of LGBT rights in Russia, would only further isolate Russia (and LGBT Russians) from the rest of the world, and would quell opportunities for our athletes. Let’s take a look at history:
The 1936 Summer Olympics were held in Berlin, the center of Nazi Germany. There were calls to boycott the games due to the Nazis’ racial and anti-Semitic policies. At the insistence of Franklin Roosevelt, America participated. When Jesse Owens won four gold medals for the 100 meter and 200 meter sprints, the long jump, and the 4X100 meter sprint relay, he threw mud in the face of Hitler’s theories on Aryan racial supremacy.
In 1980, 65 nations, led by the United States, boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The boycott did nothing to change Soviet policy: the Russians remained in Afghanistan for another nine years. Nor did the boycott do anything to harm the Soviets’ image – not that they ever cared about appearances.
But the boycott did harm the many athletes who were unable to participate. As Greg Louganis wrote:
”The boycott was a terrible disappointment. All of us had been working toward the games, and now suddenly it was gone. To make matters worse, we were all expected to fall in line behind the president. I never paid much attention to politics, so I really didn’t care why we were boycotting. Whether the goal was to humiliate the Soviets for invading Afghanistan or to express dramatically our government’s disapproval of the invasion, the bottom line was that we weren’t going to compete. The athletes and the fans paid the price for the message.”
Louganis went on to note that even though he was able to resume his Olympic career in 1984 and 1988, for many, 1980 was their last chance to compete.
In 1984, the Soviets and 14 other nations responded with their own boycott of the Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, to even less effect.
In short, the idea that a boycott of the Olympics would have prevented the Holocaust, brought about Soviet withdrawal in Afghanistan, or prevented Western victory in the Cold War is beyond fallacious – it’s nonsensical. It’s the kind of idea raised by New York activists like Michelangelo Signorile and Harvey Fierstein – both of whom live in gayborhoods and neither of whom have any idea what it’s like for aspiring athletes – gay or straight - growing up in flyover country.
A much better enterprise would be to use the power of the purse and persuade sponsors, including Coca-Cola, Visa, Samsung, and other corporations, to refrain from advertising at the games – and failing that, to boycott them. Even better would be for the International Olympics Committee to move the games to a more appropriate venue, perhaps London or Vancouver. A boycott of Russian made products could also be effective. There has been talk of boycotting Russian Vodka (which might lead people to realize that Polish Vodka is superior at any rate) as well as those stupid nesting dolls. Further, a voluntary boycott of tourism and visiting performance artists in Russia would drive home how the civilized world feels about the thuggery taking over Russia. If Russians want to trot out their homophobia for all to see, right thinking companies should see to it that such behavior is unprofitable. In the meantime, the Western powers, including the United States, should reform their immigration laws and welcome LGBT from countries which oppress them. That’s a more effective way to help LGBT people throughout the world.