Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Adding My Voice to the Growing International Call for a Boycott of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic & Paralympic Games

Vladimir Putin’s Russia has been making grim international headlines lately. Never the sort of bastion of freedom of expression which many in the West hoped it might become after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet “Evil Empire”, Russia nevertheless had taken some tentative steps in the direction of democratic discourse under its first President, Boris Yeltsin. However, since Yeltsin’s exit from office on New Year’s Eve 1999, Russia’s democrats have slowly stifled under the iron-fisted guidance of former KGB boss Putin. Putin’s repertoire of repression has consisted of vote-rigging, blackmail, interfering with journalism and the outright assassination of journalists and democrats who have maligned his police-state government.

Recent headlines have a lot to do with Russia’s domestic situation, and if this circumstance were one which effected only Russians, well, it would be bad enough and we should all still be talking about it. But, with the Winter Olympic Games and Paralympics scheduled to kick off early next year in the Black Sea-side town of Sochi, Russia’s domestic politics of oppression have come under international scrutiny. Specifically, Russia has recently passed a number of new laws which outlaw gay and “pro-gay” behaviour and propaganda.

After cracking heads at the St. Petersburg and Moscow Pride Parades earlier this summer, Russia’s police appear poised to arrest and detain Russians and foreigners whom are believed to be homosexuals or supporters of gay rights. Yes, this is the year 2013, and it’s more than 40 years after Stonewall. And it’s 65 years after the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s true that Russia isn’t the only (or even close to the worst) offender when it comes to gay rights, but with these recent changes, it’s clear that Russia is moving in the wrong direction.

There is no question that gay rights are human rights. Canada and other Western nations need to be doing far more to remind Russia, a member of the G-8, to be doing more to advance human rights issues, rather than taking steps backwards because of some deemed offence to Putin’s so-called masculinity posed by those who don’t walk a straight and narrow path.

The Olympics: More than "Sport"

When the Winter Olympics and Paralympic Games were awarded to Sochi by the International Olympic Commission (IOC), it was well-known that Russia had a number of rights-related issues. Yet, the IOC, no stranger to working with repressive regimes, having already awarded the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing, China, decided that it was Russia’s turn again. Russia previously hosted the disastrous 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, which were almost universally boycotted by Western nations, over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. In retaliation, Russia and most other Eastern-Bloc countries boycotted the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Many say that the days of international boycotts of the Olympics are thankfully over, and that the Olympics should never have been politicized by boycotts in the first place. The Olympics are, after all, first and foremost about sport. Right?

Well, yes and no. While clearly competition and sport lie at the heart of the modern Olympics, the Olympics have never truly been only about sport. While it may be that athletes and teams only compete against other athletes and teams, the fact of the matter is that by recognizing the country of origin of athletes to the point of flying national flags and playing national anthems while athletes stand astride the winner’s podium, it’s clear that there is a lot more than just simple “sport” playing itself out at the Olympics.

Boycotts aren’t new to the Olympics either. Many forget that most African nations boycotted the 1976 games here in Canada, over the IOC’s decision to allow New Zealand’s rugby team to participate in the Games, after New Zealand had played a match against apartheid South Africa. Further, it hasn’t been unusual for Olympians themselves to boycott the Games, or even certain matches. In boxing events, it’s not unusual to see athletes from Arab nations refuse to participate in matches with Israelis.

Clearly, there’s a lot more than sport going on at the Olympics.

And that’s a very important point which needs to be made, as Canada gets ready to send our athletes to Sochi in 2014. Our athletes have trained for years, and in some cases for the better part of their lives, working towards competing in the Olympic Games. For many, this will be their one and only shot at obtaining the holy grail of amateur athletics: an Olympic Gold Medal. Our athletes dream of having the honour of draping themselves in the Canadian flag after out-performing the very best from around the world. Indeed, the pride which they bring to Canada, simply by competing, is something which will stay with them for a lifetime.

The Politics of the Olympics

Growing calls for boycotting the Sochi Games seem to threaten to kibosh those dreams of our athletes. Many Canadians are disgusted that there are other Canadians who would dare stomp on those dreams, and pass over an opportunity for Canada to shine on the international stage. Some of the concerns being expressed by Canadians over a possible boycott are well-meaning. Certainly, at the time of writing this, no Canadian athlete that I’m aware of has suggested that maybe the Canadian Olympic Committee needs to rethink its decision to compete in these games.

And ultimately, it’s the Canadian Olympic Committee which gets to decide one way or the other. Of course, this Committee can be subject to significant political pressure, which at this time is being applied by elected officials who want the Committee to “stay the course” on Sochi. While Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird hasn’t said anything about boycotting Sochi, his office has issued a release expressing concern over recent developments. Opposition Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar doesn’t think Baird has done enough to address the situation in Russia; but Dewar has also been very clear that Canada should send our athletes to the Sochi Games. With the Government and Opposition on the same page over calls to boycott Sochi, no doubt the "stay the course" course becomes an easy one to follow.

While calls for a boycott continue to grow, they may never become loud enough to change the minds of Western politicians, most of whom appear to be singing from the same song sheet when it comes to the Olympics. The fact of the matter is that Western nations recognize the economic importance of the Olympic Games, and not just to host countries. Using Canada as an example, can you imagine the hit that our national broadcaster would take, broadcasting an Olympic Games without Canadian athletes in it? And what about all of those Canadian businesses which have stepped up to sponsor athletes, or to buy air time from broadcasters during the games? Back in the early 1980s, the Olympics weren’t such a big deal, business-speaking, as they are today. As a result, the West has tended to line up behind the Olympics and the IOC, and talk of boycotts for political reasons have largely fallen on deaf ears.

Some may suggest that’s largely as it should be. Again, the Olympics are really just about sport, right?

And again, no, that’s never really been the case. Consider for a moment the sheer amount of money which Canada spends on the Olympics. While spending has been down lately, and largely focussed on the athletes, coaches etc., look back on the recent Vancouver Winter Games in 2010. And reflect on the amount of money which went into two unsuccessful bids for the Games in Toronto. Taxpayers are on the hook for supporting the Olympics through government funding of athletes, infrastructure and the wining and dining of elite IOC delegates. While it’s true that not all funding sources for Canada’s Olympic participation are public, the fact of the matter is that as long as taxpayer dollars are going towards this endeavour, the public should have a say in whether or not we believe it continues to be a worthwhile expenditure.

Clearly, recent events in Russia have left many Canadians questioning whether or not the Sochi Games represent money well spent.

The Risk for Canadians

While the IOC has assured the global community that Russia’s crackdown on gays will not affect the athletes participating in the Games, it’s not at all clear that such a guarantee is worth the paper that it hasn’t even been printed on. Russia’s laws are universal and Russia has made it clear that they apply to anyone found within its jurisdiction suspected of being gay or pro-gay. That means that despite assurances, our athletes are vulnerable to being detained by Russian authorities. And for those of you who don’t think that Russia might not stoop to harassing or detaining foreign athletes in order to gain a competitive edge, clearly you’ve not been paying attention to the way in which Russia and former Soviet Union have prioritized a “winning is everything” attitude in sport.

And what of supporters and fans? Would I be at risk of detainment or arrest if I went to Sochi, based on the content of this blogpost? If you’ve ever attended a Pride Parade and posted pics of it on Facebook, you may be at risk of detainment for the perception of being pro-gay. While you’re likely not going to be specifically targeted by police for having done so due to a resource issues, what if you first end up under police scrutiny for other activity? I suspect that in the past there may have been one or two incidents of “drunken and disorderly” Canadians picked up by local police while attending the Olympics.

And beyond the threat that these new laws pose to athletes and sports fans, there is the more fundamental question of human rights – and specifically Russia’s continual flaunting of human rights. Let’s face it – Russia has just poked a stick in the eyes of the West with these blatantly homophobic legal changes and the persecution of gay people. The timing is certainly suspect. Has it been Russia’s plan all along to create division amongst Western nations in any form that it can? Putin and others have almost certainly turned on the TV set a few times and witnessed the uproars in France, the United States and elsewhere over gay rights issues.

To Boycott or Not to Boycott

With all of this in mind, the question remains: Should Canada boycott the Sochi Games? It’s terribly unfortunate that the IOC decided that Russia was a worthy nation to host the games in the first place. But the IOC remains convinced that the Olympics really are primarily about sport, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. Canada continues to support the IOC and the Olympic Games through our taxpayer-funded contributions which support amateur athletes and the Olympics. It’s because of the taxpayer subsidy that the voices of all Canadians need to be considered when asking the question whether a boycott should happen. I suspect that a nation enamoured with the Olympics, and which feels passionately about our athletes who carry our flag and bring pride to our country would opt not to boycott the Sochi Games. These opinions cannot be and should not be easily discounted or dismissed by others who believe that a boycott really is needed at this time.

Although I am one of those Canadians who enjoys watching the Olympic Games (with the TV on almost constantly, I’m a massive consumer of Olympic coverage), I have never been a huge supporter of the Olympics. While I believe that the pursuit of healthy competition through sport is a worthwhile endeavour, I can’t help but question the massive financial allocations which have been set aside by public and private purses across the world which are needed to make the modern Olympics a reality. I just can’t help but wonder whether the billions of dollars spent on the Olympics, which I believe to be about more than competition through sport, might not be better spent elsewhere.

And in the context of being “better spent elsewhere”, I believe that it’s incumbent upon Western nations, including Canada, to acknowledge the financial injection which we are making to Russia through our support of and participation in the Sochi Games. As Russia continues to prove to the world that it is willing to step back on human rights issues, our economic support of Russia and its actions needs to be questioned. The Olympic Games don’t represent some every-day financial transaction. Instead, they can be an economic privilege which a nation can take advantage of, bestowed on the host nation by an international body, of which Canada is a member and financial supporter of. When the connections are made between the money taken out of my wallet and the police in Russia who will detain people for being “pro-gay”, it’s clear to me that there is a right thing to do. That’s why I believe that Canada should choose to boycott the Sochi Winter Games and the Paralympic Winter Games.

The Moral Case for a Sochi Boycott

Let me be clear: my opinion is not one that is shared by my friends, my Party, or even my spouse. I also understand quite clearly that this opinion is probably not shared by the vast majority of Canadians, and I’m not suggesting that just because I feel that a boycott is “right” that I don’t understand why others might feel that it’s wrong, or feel that I am undervaluing their own perspective. I haven’t, however, come to this conclusion lightly, and I do understand the angst that a boycott would create amongst Canadians, along with the devastation which it would cause to many of our athletes and their families. I’ve weighed these considerations and I have come to the conclusion that to boycott of the Sochi Games would be a moral choice for Canada, and indeed all nations, to make given the recent anti-human rights behaviour of Russia. The choice to boycott would have a rock-solid foundation in a values system shared by a majority of Canadians, which has at its heart a respect for diversity and an unquenchable desire to support human rights.

If we truly believe that gay rights are human rights, I believe that we need to start taking stands against bullies – be they individuals or nation-states – which seek to impose their values on what is fundamentally an all-encompassing human rights matter. And that’s why I believe that Canada has a moral obligation in this circumstance to take a principled stand on the Sochi Games. Remember, a law which criminalizes being a homosexual or which makes supporting gays illegal is just as wrong as a law which criminalizes being a jew or which makes supporting feminism illegal.

Let’s send Vladimir Putin’s Russia a clear message that Canada stands up to bullies who believe that not all humans are created equally.

(opinions expressed in this blog are my own and should not be interpreted as being consistent with the views and/or policies of the Green Party of Canada)

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