Calls to boycott the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, over Russia’s new anti-gay law are misguided. The law is reprehensible, but boycotts are rarely productive. The best way for athletes and others to protest will be to be attend the Games and ignore the law.
The new law – one of a series of recent bills in Russia designed to crack down on dissent – bans “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations.” Gay pride demonstrations are illegal, as is the act of handing a pamphlet or any other information about sexual orientation to a minor. Violators face fines and imprisonment; Russian police also have the power to arrest, detain and deport any foreigners who “propagandize.” The law is without question a violation of basic human rights and unworthy of a G8 country.
By adopting the law just months before the Winter Olympic Games, Russian authorities have ignited a global backlash and are faced with a choice: either enforce the law at the Games and risk turning the event into a prime-time debacle; or back off and tacitly admit the law is unenforceable and out of step.
Athletes who support equality and freedom from discrimination – hallmarks of the Olympic movement – have an obligation to make their distaste known and force Russia’s hand. This is especially true at this moment in history, when gay-marriage rights are expanding and professional athletes are taking stands against homophobia. The NHL, whose players form a large part of numerous Winter Olympic teams, recently partnered with the You Can Play organization to fight homophobia in sports. More recently, a veteran NBA basketball player announced he was gay and was welcomed and supported by players across the league.
It is extremely unlikely that Russian authorities will round up foreign athletes and sports officials who openly support gay rights in Sochi. Not even Russia, churlish as it has become lately, wants its Olympic moment in the sun marred by arrests and diplomatic spats that would be broadcast around the clock on international television. The Winter Games are thus a golden opportunity for athletes and their supporters to demonstrate their opposition to Russia’s retrograde law. It’s an opportunity that should not be missed.