Want to Boycott the Olympics? Then You Should Boycott Russia


Russia’s recent spate of anti-LGBT laws have political and social activists debating whether to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia. But boycotting the Olympics will not be enough to bring worldwide attention to the state of LGBT rights around the world.

Boycotting the Olympics should be just one tactic in a global strategy that pressures countries to adhere to the United Nations Human Rights Coalition’s resolution on LGBT rights. That strategy should be multifaceted and targeted at all points of contact with the offending country. If we are not going to take this issue seriously by coordinating a multi-pronged attack against intolerance, then a boycott is nothing more than a political stunt that harms the athletes who have worked their entire life to compete at this event.

The United States, for example, declared it would use its full range of diplomatic and development tools to press for the elimination of violence and discrimination against LGBT people worldwide. If we start boycotting countries from hosting the Olympics based on their LGBT policy and use it as leverage to effect a change in policy, then we should also stage protests and organize boycotts that affect trade agreements, diplomatic relations, foreign exchange programs, and other international interactions. We should pressure airlines and state departments to restrict travel to countries with unfavorable LGBT policies. It seems to me that would be a far more comprehensive and honest approach to highlighting the issue than penalizing just the athletes who participate in the Olympics.

If we are going to penalize the athletes then everyone should be deprived of working, vacationing, or pursuing their life’s dream. Foreign exchange students, for example, shouldn’t be allowed to live and work in these countries. Foreign aid and assistance should be conditional based on demonstrated progress towards adherence to the core legal obligations outlined in the UNHRC resolution.

The core legal obligations are to:

-Protect individuals from homophobic and transphobic violence.

-Prevent torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.

-Repeal laws criminalizing homosexuality.

-Prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

-Safeguard freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly for all LGBT people.

There is a history of leveraging the Olympics as a platform to highlight important political, social, civil, and humanitarian issues. Jesse Owens’ victories in the 1936 Berlin games destroyed the fallacy of a master race. Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously gave the “Power to the People” salute at the 1968 games in Mexico City to highlight civil rights issues in the United States. In 1976, 25 African nations boycotted the games over the apartheid regime in South Africa. Each of those events, however, was buttressed by larger, comprehensive movements that resulted in a permanent change in policy and practice.

According to the UNHRC, 76 countries criminalize private, consensual same-sex relationships. Only 94 of the 193 member states have signed the resolution. Fifty-four have signed a letter explicitly opposing LGBT rights, while the rest have neither officially opposed nor supported LGBT rights. Virtually all of the Middle East and Northern Africa has signed the resolution opposing LGBT rights, while China, Russia, and India have been non-committal. That means that three of the top five economies in the world have not explicitly expressed support for LGBT rights. Are we prepared to extend the boycott to include economic activity and international relations with Russia, China, and India until they adhere to the standards set by the UN — or should it just be athletics?