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Canada's goaltender Shannon Szabados looks on during their women's ice hockey team practice ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 4, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)
Canada's goaltender Shannon Szabados looks on during their women's ice hockey team practice ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics February 4, 2014. (MARK BLINCH/REUTERS)

BRAIN STORM

Have your say: How do we cheer the Olympics without condoning Russia’s record? Add to ...

Craig and Marc Kielburger founded Free The Children and Me to We. Their biweekly Brain Storm column taps experts and readers for solutions to social issues.

Human rights versus hockey. It’s a quintessentially Canadian dilemma.

Canadians are passionate about human rights – one of us, New Brunswick-born law professor John Humphrey, literally wrote the United Nations Declaration on the subject. But we also love our winter sports. Sidney Crosby’s “golden goal” in Vancouver was our most unifying moment as a nation since, well, Jasey-Jay Anderson’s snowboarding gold the day before.

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It would appear that these two fundamental Canadian passions are colliding in this month’s Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. Controversy over Russia’s infamous anti-gay “propaganda” law, its support of Bashar-al-Assad’s ruthless regime in Syria, and its general stifling of political dissent make it difficult for anyone interested in human rights to watch the awesome aerial skiing with a fully clear conscience.

Add in a recent report by Human Rights Watch that Sochi’s Olympic facilities were built mainly by exploited migrant workers in poor conditions for little or no pay, after evicting local residents from their homes without compensation, and our Canadian conscience is torn.

Sports and human rights are not two separate subjects. South Africa was barred from Olympic competition from 1964 to 1992 because of apartheid, based on the sixth fundamental principle of the Olympic Charter that “any form of discrimination … on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Should we then boycott the Olympics as sports fans? No way, says Hilary Homes, a campaigner for Amnesty International Canada. “The same spotlight that shines on the spectacle of the Olympic Games also highlights the successes and failings of the host country,” she told us. “This is an opportunity to raise awareness, dialogue and advocacy that might not be there otherwise.”

So what, exactly, can the average person with a red maple leaf painted on their face do to stand up for human rights while still catching the pairs figure skating? Would Vladimir Putin really have a change of heart (or several) under a pile of snail mail from Canada?

This week’s question: How do we enjoy the Olympic Winter Games without ignoring the human-rights issues in the immediate background?

THE EXPERTS:

Minky Worden, director of global initiatives at Human Rights Watch

“Yell for your awesome athletes, but also cheer and support brave Russian human rights defenders who are fighting state-sponsored discrimination while facing daily threats, acts of violence and harassment.”

Mark Tewksbury, Canadian Olympic gold medalist (1992 Barcelona)

“The decision to bring the Olympics to Sochi was made by the International Olympic Committee, so if you believe human rights must be considered among the criteria for Olympic host countries, let them know.”

Martin Shaw, professor at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies

“We should demand that national leaders stay away from Sochi, as your prime minister did from the Sri Lankan Commonwealth conference. It could also have an impact if winning athletes had the courage to make a gesture of support for the Syrian people on the podium.”

Have your say in the comment section.

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