Should we boycott next year’s Winter Olympics?

Stephen Fry up

Prime Minister David Cameron has rejected actor Stephen Fry’s request to boycott next year’s Winter Olympics in protest at Russia’s homophobic laws.

Vladimir Putin’s new legislation allows for the imposition of heavy fines for anyone providing information about homosexuality to people under the age of eighteen. The Russian city Sochi hosts the games.  Athletes have been warned they’ll be penalized if they “propagandise” on the issue.  The probability is that there will be no boycott and that the controversy will resurface again as we approach the 2018 football World Cup, which will be held in Russia.  By then it’s probable there will be several openly gay footballers.

As with any boycott, there is a balance of interests.  Athletes aiming to compete at next year’s Games will be training hard and dedicating themselves to winning a medal.  Clearly, none of them – straight or gay – would want to sacrifice their chances.  Any protest over political, social or moral issues risks casualties of this kind. Individuals have their own interests at heart and there is nothing wrong with this.

On the other side of the balance sheet are collective issues, in this case one concerning fundamental human rights.  Gay people are currently stigmatized in Russia.  Like all international sports tournaments, the Winter Olympics presents an almost natural forum for events far removed from sport.

Some people, like Cameron, prioritize individuals’ interests over all others.  He believes it would be wrong to prevent athletes competing in what will probably be their career-high tournament. Fry’s call for a boycott suggests he thinks, if Russia is allowed to proceed in an uninhibited way, the effect will be to condone its attitude towards gay people.

So who is right? The first lesson history teaches us is that sporting protests do work: they force issues often involving prejudice and inequality to the attention of the world and concentrate pressure on offending nations to reconsider their policies, laws and sometimes ideology.

The Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 was instrumental in the eventual fall of South African apartheid in 1990: it effectively ostracized South Africa by prohibiting sporting contacts.

Boycotts usually make headlines and attract the rhetoric of interested parties who talk regretfully about how unfortunate is it that sport and politics have become mixed-up.  In fact, sports and politics are not just mixed-up, but entwined so closely that they will never be separated: sport is an effective vehicle for promoting or publicizing causes, principles and aims, aswell as full-blown ideologies. Presumably, this was on the minds of Black September when it planned what turned into a bloodbath. The group’s demands for the release of 200 Palestinian prisoners were not met, precipitating a sequence of killing at the Munich Olympics of 1972. The massacre was horrific and condemned almost universally, but it made the condition of Palestinians known to the world.

Earlier at the 1968 Olympics, there had been an iconic moment when African American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos wore black berets and gloves and bowed their heads on the victory rostrum while the US national anthem played. At the time they were decried as unpatriotic and hounded out of sport.  Now they are revered as the men who made America’s prejudice against black people known to the world and in their own way made their imprint on history.

There are those who will argue that we could find fault with the host of practically any major sports competition.  Remember, Britain, which held last year’s Olympics, is not without critics. So when we consider protests, we have to think in terms of a political or moral triage, assigning degrees of urgency to issues, some of which demand more immediate attention than others.  The gay issue in Russia does, in my opinion, require attention.  Gay people are, we understand, habitually persecuted in a nation with a population of 143 million, and where the attitude towards homosexuality is basically the result of a hangover from the Soviet Union combined with Putin’s crass and populist ideology.  I respect the rights of the athletes who will defend their freedom to choose whether or not to attend and compete in the games.  But they should ask themselves whether they would be complicit in perpetuating a social and political arrangement that is morally repugnant.