Boycott Sochi?

By JOHN WILSON

Outrage over the Putin regime’s recently enacted vicious anti-gay law has sparked a debate over how best to oppose it, and support queer communities in Russia. Already many protests have occurred. Aug. 3 was an international day of protest, which originated in San Francisco and saw demonstrations in many cities. In Toronto several hundred people marched to the the Russian consulate. Protests continue, including one of 10,000 in Denmark held on Aug. 20.

The anger behind demands to boycott the Winter Olympics is more than justified. But is this the way to go? First of all, boycotts are notoriously ineffective. Two of the most successful, that against apartheid South Africa and the one in support of U.S. farm workers, took years to organize and succeed. The campaign for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against the Zionist apartheid state of Israel is starting to have some bite, with a long way to go still.

Secondly, considering who controls the Olympics, the prospects for success are remote. For the spectacularly corrupt and reactionary International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its local franchise, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC), the overwhelming priorities will, as always, be profits and power. Both organizations have refused to protest Putin’s law (“inappropriate”!) and both prohibit any kind of demonstration or protest.

Let’s not forget that anti-gay and anti-poor “clean-ups” have been a feature of practically every Olympics in living memory. Thirdly, as Greg Louganis, the openly gay Olympic gold medalist diver points out, a previous Olympic boycott meant the sudden end of many athletes’ international careers. And while it’s true that many contestants from rich countries come from a privileged elite, many do not, especially from the global South. The reactionary way that the Olympics are organized is not the fault of the participating athletes.

Rather than spend enormous time and effort on an almost certainly unrealizable goal, it makes more sense to organize mass protests both inside and outside the 2014 Winter Olympics. The International Coalition of LGBT Sports and Human Rights Organizations demands that the IOC organize a Pride House at Sochi. Lou Englefield, a spokesperson, says, “We believe in action that is concrete and goals that are attainable. We also believe in listening to our partners in Russia who tell us they don’t want a boycott. Athletes should not bear the burden of Putin’s homophobic regime and what in effect is the complicity of the IOC.”

The Olympics of 1968 proved that protest can be very effective. Then, Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the Black Power salute after their medals presentation. This action rocketed into international fame. Of course, outrageously, the IOC reactionaries rescinded their wins after the fact. Effective protest actions can take place again. Let’s make every effort to see that they do.

Significantly, in all the furor, the mainstream corporate media have failed to mention the tragic irony that the early Soviet Republic was the first state in the world to decriminalize homosexuality. This, along with the right to abortion, was reversed by Putin’s predecessors during the consolidation of Stalin’s dictatorship in the 1930s.

Photo: Protest outside the Russian embassy in Madrid. By Paul White / AP.