Why I fear the 2014 Winter Olympics will go ahead as planned


Whilst I applaud the calls for the global community to take a stand over Russia’s vicious new law against LGBT men and women, I am struggling to see how the possible moves that have been suggested might work in practice.

Option one is for the IOC to move the Games elsewhere. But the Olympics are big business. It’s not the plucky theatre of amateur sporting endeavour that it was in the beginning. Once the venue is announced, the juggernaut of commerce starts to roll. Mega-corporations and states start haggling over who will build it, who will sponsor it, who will service it, who will see it, and who will get to strip the carcass afterwards. The reality is that stopping the juggernaut is beyond the powers of the IOC. Even if they wanted to, they couldn’t. The backers of the Olympics have deep pockets and the best legal teams. You don’t mess with them. Any threat made by the IOC to relieve Russia of the Olympics would be seen as risible by the occupants of global corporate boardrooms everywhere. After they finished laughing, they’d be straight on the phone to the lawyers to sue the IOC for breach of contract.

Option two is for individual countries to boycott the games. Plenty of countries have boycotted the Olympics for various reasons. A number of countries boycotted the 1936 Berlin Olympiad; seven countries boycotted the 1956 Games because of the Suez crisis; and, the 1980 Olympics, held in Moscow, saw the U.S.A. boycott the Games due to Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year (anyone else see the irony there?). As these examples show, a boycott of the Games does nothing to change the host nation politically. Unless a boycott is universal and another country volunteers to host an alternate Games that proves more popular, thus becoming the de facto Games, the people a boycott hurts most are your own competitors.

Consider this: you are an athlete, it’s what you do, it’s what you’ve done every morning at 5am since you were eight or nine, whether you felt like it or not; you’ve trained for four years to reach your peak performance at Sochi  in February 2014; your sponsors, coaching team, country, friends, family are all supporting you and have been for a long time. A minority group ask you to give all that up to boycott the Olympics in order to make a political point that may or may not change a law in someone else’s country. What do you do? It’s a lot to ask.

Option three would be for the IOC to ban Russia from participating in the Olympics. This has form, although it has proved completely ineffective in terms of changing individual nations’ offensive policies. Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, and Turkey were not invited to compete in the 1920 Olympics, with Germany’s ban lasting until 1932, due to their part in the First World War; Germany and Japan were suspended from competing in 1948 for obvious reasons; South Africa was banned from competing in the Olympics between 1964 and 1992 because of their policy of racial segregation; and,  Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) was barred in 1972 because a number of African countries threatened to withdraw if Zimbabwe’s white-minority rule had been allowed to send a team. In practice, it is difficult to see how the IOC could ban the host country!

However, I see a glimmer of light in all of this. Russia’s crackdown on its LGBT citizens could prove to be a turning point for LGBT athletes. It is widely acknowledged that sport is one of the last bastions of homophobic attitudes on and off the field of play. For gay men it is a particularly difficult environment. More and more sportsmen are coming out, but there are many more still in the closet one suspects. If straight athletes were to vocalise their abhorrence at Russia’s draconian measures ahead of the Sochi Olympics, it might go a long way towards making sport a homophobia free zone and a safe environment for their colleagues to come out. Instead of haranguing the IOC and politicians to take actions they cannot, in reality, take, I think we should be encouraging high profile sports men and women to use this issue to speak out and take a stand for LGBT rights in sports.

You can catch up with the latest developments on this here.

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