Why I’m Tuning Out Sochi 2014

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As a Canadian born and raised in the Great White North, loving and celebrating winter sport is in my DNA. From my formative years as a hockey brat to a university student skating on the Rideau Canal in the nation’s capital, Nordic activities surround us for much of the year, integrating themselves into our daily lives. When Canada “owned the podium” during the 2010 Winter Olympics, hosted on our own soil in Vancouver, I was among those who became caught up in the irresistibly contagious fervor of national pride, and the massive celebration of the unity of humanity through athleticism. However, this sadly cannot be the case in 2014, as I, personally, tune out the Sochi Olympics, in response to the indifference exhibited by the International Olympic Committee and its presenting sponsors toward the bigoted, violent, and discriminatory treatment of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community in Russia.

In addition to the cultural acclimation to winter sports I have been instilled with as a Canadian, I also believe incredibly strongly in the equality of all people, regardless of their gender, ethnicity, language, or – this is a big one in 2014 – sexuality. Discrimination, of any kind, is not something that should be taken lightly or tolerated, in any arena – sporting, or otherwise – and the decision to proceed with the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, despite the hardline and blatantly discriminatory stance and policymaking of their government towards the LGBT community, exceeds the capacity of what I can overlook or ignore. While I congratulate all of the athletes of the Games themselves, with particular well-wishes to the Canadian delegation, I feel it is shameful that the organizational powers that be have decided to turn a blind eye to the massive human rights violations that are happening on a daily basis in Russia, and, in essence, endorse the activities of the Russian government through the continuance of their status as host country in 2014.

I cannot help but question why the International Olympic Community and its ultra-wealthy presenting sponsors do not feel that the transgressions of the Russian government are severe enough to merit the relocation or revocation of the rights to host the Games. After all, the Olympics are supposed to be a celebration of the human spirit – and Russia’s anti-gay laws, and its subsequent inaction to curtail the rise of state-sponsored violence by vigilante groups against LGBT individuals, single-handedly violate a number of key points of the Olympic Charter by which the Games are supposedly governed. The IOC Charter says discrimination “on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or other otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”, and yet the Games proceed as planned in a host country that so unquestionably violates these defining principles of the Olympics. As members of the gay community are arrested, kidnapped, beaten, harassed, publicly humiliated, and suffer through other much worse forms of marginalization and degradation, Russia stands to be a benefactor of global attention and income as a result of Sochi 2014. Despite lukewarm assurances from Russian President Vladimir Putin that gay athletes and spectators will be safe in Russia (conditional to the degrading claim that they avoid activities connecting them with pedophilia), it is still expected that they will conform to the same laws that prevent advocating for LGBT rights in the country. I cannot fathom how this must feel for gay and lesbian athletes who will be competing in the Games, knowing that an integral part of their character is unwelcome in the host country, and that they could be subjected to beatings, imprisonment, and other forms of second-class citizen treatment in response to their self-expression.

Let us imagine for a moment that the Olympics were slated to be held in a country that had not long ago passed legislation that made it illegal to advocate for women’s rights, or a country that condones, and even propagates, violence against African Americans. Can you imagine the Olympics proceeding in a country whereby the state essentially endorses and encourages its population to harass and belittle members of the Asian community, or anybody who speaks Italian, or the disabled, or any other racial, ethnic, linguistic, or group of any kind? It is unfathomable think that the IOC would turn a blind eye to prominent figures in an impending host country to be advocating for the burning of a portion of its population in ovens, invoking imagery of another horrific historical occurrence that the Olympics failed to curtail when they had the chance. How, or why, are the conditions of action in Sochi 2014 different than they would be in any of these other scenarios? In effect, the IOC is saying that violations against the LGBT community are not severe enough to merit reconsideration of the celebration of the host country. This is a dangerous and horrible double standard, whereby an entire section of the Russian population, degraded simply for being who they are, is not being sympathized with or supported by massive organizations that have more than the means to enact positive change in Russia that would be beneficial to them. Even with horrible video evidence emerging from Russia on a routine basis, and warnings from international organizations such as Human Rights Watch are not enough to cause the organizers of the Olympics to consider that, possibly, they are making an enormous mistake through their complacency and indifference. As the anti-gay laws in Russia passed in June of 2013, Olympic organizers had ample time to reconsider their positioning on this issue. They failed to do so, and thus, in my opinion, the IOC is in direct partnership with the state-manufactured bigotry being displayed in Russia.

To be sure, the IOC is not solely complicit in this travesty – rather, I would hold their major sponsors equally responsible for failing to apply pressure to the important decision-makers within it to reconsider their commitment to Sochi. In my personal opinion, the IOC and its presenting partners have on their hands the blood of all those who have been murdered, attacked and suffered through all sorts of horrible forms of violence in Russia as a result of government positions and policies that could have succumbed to an unwavering amount of powerful pressure associated with the onerous task of hosting the Olympic Games. Rather than utilize this influence to effect positive change, the IOC and its sponsors have instead chosen to place profits and logistics above the basic human rights of the LGBT community not only in Russia, but anywhere in the world whereby they continue to suffer from discrimination. The Sochi Olympics broadcast to the world a message that not only is it acceptable for a government to marginalize a portion of its population in a blatant and violent way, but also that the government in question can do so without consequence from the global community. This is a sad and sorry state of affairs, and I will refuse to participate in such messaging as a supporter of the Sochi Olympics.

While many of my fellow countrymen and women will undoubtedly watch the Olympic Games with excitement, and continue to purchase the products offered by those sponsors who stand to benefit from the exposure associated with the Olympics, I personally will be tuning the Games out. For me, the Olympic rings of Sochi 2014 are representative of the deeply rooted and hateful noose that the Russian government wishes, and is actively working to place around the necks of gay, lesbian, and transgendered individuals within that country. I cannot, and will not, support such a large-scale event proceeding in a country that would permit members of its society to rape me with a broken glass bottle should I be in attendance, simply for being who I am. For me, my integrity and belief system will not allow me to support such a charade – and thus, while I sincerely hope that my fellow Canadians return home with nothing more than medals to show for it, I hope that they, too, cherish as I do the fact that we live in a society that would never tolerate such horrible indiscretions and crimes. We are the true north, strong, and free – and while much of the world celebrates the 2014 Winter Olympics, I give thanks for that very freedom we value so much, and turn away with a heart that is heavy for all members of the LGBT community, in Russia and beyond, who are not privy to such basic recognition and protection. I feel a great sadness for the gay and lesbian population of Russia, that in just a few short days, the eyes of the world will be on their country which lacks the compassion and humility to see them as equals.

To any of my dear readers from the LGBT community in Russia – my personal boycott may not effect much change – but please know that this little Canadian cannot be counted among those who support an organization that had a such a window of opportunity to help you, but rather, chose not to.

Photo: The Guardian, all rights reserved.

Photo: The Guardian, all rights reserved.

2 comments on “Why I’m Tuning Out Sochi 2014

  1. David Radacanu says:

    I completely understand the reason for your personal boycott of the Sochi Olympics. I do not fault you for your principals. I do have one question though. Since your are such a high-minded person, did you also personally boycott the 208 Beijing Olympics?

    • Hi David, thank you for your response and your question. Like many, I certainly did have concerns about the 2008 Beijing Olympics as well, on broader human rights grounds, and especially with regards to their tight constraints upon media. I feel there are major key differences between China and the situation in Russia that change the dynamic somewhat. For example, the pressure of hosting the Beijing Games was utilized to compel China to permit a greater freedom for the press (even if temporary), whereas the onus of hosting the Winter Olympics has not resulted in the same pressures upon Russia to reconsider its stance towards the LGBT community. I feel strongly that remaining silent about the indiscretions of the Russian government towards LGBT persons, as a global community, sends an incorrect message that we endorse this behaviour – which I vehemently do not, and am proud to add my voice to the chorus that will hopefully result in even the most minor of shifts towards positive change. I hope this helps answer your question – thank you for reading!

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