Sochi is upon us. After months of debates about the Olympics and Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws, the Games have begun. Some who supported a boycott may choose to turn their backs on the games, while others remain ambivalent about how to engage with the Olympics without turning their backs on LGBT communities. Here are some ideas for how to be an ally.
First, stop saying that the Olympics are not political. They are and always have been political. Those who say that they aren’t are denying the very nature and history of the Games. Its very basic principles as contained in the Olympic Charter are political – respect for universal fundamental ethical principles, promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity and a commitment to non-discrimination.
Over and again, nations have used the Games as a platform for their political stands. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were perhaps the most political ever. Germany was initially given the games to demonstrate its restored position amongst European nations. But Hitler used the Games to promote the Nazi’s ideals of racial superiority. After being cancelled during the Second World War, the London 1948 games suspended Germany and Japan.
Then came years of boycotts: In Melbourne 1956, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the People’s Republic of China all boycotted for different reasons; in Tokyo 1964, North Korea & Indonesia withdraw and South Africa was suspended for apartheid policies; Munich 1972 saw Rhodesia banned and the massacre of Israeli athletes; For Montreal 1976, Tanzania led a boycott of twenty-two African nations because the IOC had refused to ban New Zealand, whose rugby team had recently played in South Africa; Moscow 1980 saw the U.S., West Germany China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada boycott. In retaliation, the Soviet Union and 14 of its allies boycotted the 1984 games in Los Angeles; In Seoul 1988, North Korea boycotted. Albania, Cuba, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nicaragua, and Seychelles also did not attend. Not political? Not so much.
Second, refuse to fall into the trap of thinking that there are only two choices: sport versus politics, athletes versus LGBT rights. There are many creative political and cultural choices to be made. Support the Principle 6 campaign. Started by Athlete Ally and American Apparel, the campaign is intended to celebrate the Olympic principle of non-discrimination and speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws. You can help raise awareness of Principle 6 and demand that the IOC specifically recognize sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination. Proceeds from the campaign goes to support LGBT athletes in Russia.
While you are at it, you can write to the IOC. Tell them to add sexual orientation to Principle 6. Tell them to stop threatening athletes with discipline should they engage in anything that hints of political protest at the opening and closing ceremonies, or on the podium. It is the IOC, not the athletes, who should be bearing the brunt of standing up to Russia.
Write to the Canadian Olympic Committee and it to support the campaign to revise the Olympic Charter, and to revise the COC constitution to do the same thing.
While you are writing letters to Canadian officials, consider sending one to Anne Merklinger, CEO of Own the Podium, who has said that “our team has always stayed out of political issues” and that “the Olympics need to be about sport and not about politics.” Tell her she’s wrong, because the Olympics have always been about politics.
Consider engaging with the Olympic sponsors, like Coca Cola or the Hudson’s Bay Company or MacDonald’s. Write to them, to tell them to support gay rights and maybe, that during the Olympic games, you will not be consuming their products.
Participate in or create awareness campaigns on social media, like Uprising of Love. Attend a Pride House event, and watch the Olympics with LGBT folks and their allies. Across North America, bars and restaurants are hosting Uprising of Love events, and will donate $1 of every drink sold to support Russian athletes. If there isn’t one in your community, host one.
The possibilities are actually endless. Yes, the Games will go on, and Russia has not backed down from its anti-gay laws. But, this is a moment to raise awareness, because right now, this is the only game in town. And you can do something to be an ally.
Brenda Cossman is a professor of law at the University of Toronto.
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