The Sochi Question

Alex Mitchell
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Image: Christopher Stribley

February is fast approaching when the Winter Olympics are set to take place and the sporting world descends on Sochi in Russia. This little known city and the Winter Olympics itself has been getting a disproportionate amount of bad press in comparison with previous events due to Kremlin policy.

President Putin signed into law the now infamous “Anti gay propaganda” bill in July of this year which aims to suppress the distribution of information relating to non-traditional relationships. The government argues that this law is to protect children. However, with little definition of what constitutes ‘propaganda’ some commentators’ argue that the law prohibits any sort of public defence of gay rights, or the right to argue that homosexual relationships are equal to their heterosexual counterparts. It has even been suggested that the likes of Sir Elton John and Lady Gaga break the new law with things as petty as the outfits they wear.

The bill followed on from 10 regions of Russia having passed variants of the ban between 2006 and 2013 and the Moscow City Court upholding a new law banning gay pride parades in the city for 100 years. Putin himself has likened the law to that of a bill protecting children from paedophilia, and in a poll conducted in June 90% of Russians supported the bill.

Russia has come under fire from human rights groups for what is effectively the suppression of gay people. If you look back at Russia’s gay rights record we see that Russia decriminalised homosexuality in 1917 and then recriminalized it in 1933. This stayed in place until 1993 when it was once again decriminalised but was still classed as a mental illness until 1999. The age of consent between two adults regardless of sexual orientation is 16, however, a homosexual couple is not given the same legal rights as heterosexuals and there is a ban on same sex couples adopting children. Another poll this year found that 16% of those surveyed thought gay people should be isolated from society, 22% said they should be forced to undergo treatment, and 5% said they should be “liquidated”. Just a taste of the attitude towards the gay community.

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Referring back to the Sochi question, should we boycott the Winter Olympics in February? Answers to this are fuelled with emotions with high profile celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Wentworth Miller and Lady Gaga to name a few speaking out against the legislation and calling for a boycott of the games/other events in Russia. We have seen the footage of gay bars pouring Russian vodka down the drains in protest, however the answer is not a straight forward yes or no in my opinion. Some of you may think well it’s a no brainer, they are suppressing the rights of people, rights that though we may grumble about here in Britain we take for granted to an extent, and yes I agree with you to a point. If only it were as simple as that.

I argue on several levels. Firstly the Olympic movement is apolitical. It makes no comments on government policies neither of the nations hosting nor of those competing. We saw the protests over the Beijing games in 2008 but the Olympics did not comment with regards to the Free Tibet movement. With Sochi the IOC have sought clarification of the law as applied to the games. Russia argues that spectators and athletes will not be affected by the laws, however there are counter arguments within Russia saying that whilst in Russia the laws must obeyed. So on this point we only have the word of the organising body and the government. President Putin has insisted gay athletes and fans have nothing to fear. However, the shocking images of gay people being beaten and humiliated in public and entrapped through online gay dating sites to then be tied up by hate gangs does not instil a lot of confidence.

Secondly, by boycotting the games are we taking out our anger on the athletes who play no part in Russian politics? These highly skilled and talented athletes have trained for years, routinely putting in long days and nights, to go out and perform on the world stage. How would you feel if you walked out to a crowd of protesters or rows of empty seats, all because of something that was out of your control?

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It is argued that the IOC aren’t pressing Russia enough. Well yes, however this inevitably returns to the Olympics being an apolitical event. If it suddenly starts weighing in on this issue, what is to stop them being forced to speak out on another issue. The IOC would then be eligible to comment and criticise concerns around the world, such as the UK and its role in the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, matters utterly divorced from its sporting remit. If we press the IOC to speak out on one issue it will suddenly need to stand out on any issue that a host or potential host nation or even a participating nation is involved in. Should Syria be allowed to enter as a competitor whilst the government is embroiled in a civil war? It is a strange argument but the neutrality of the Olympics allows nations to come together peacefully. We saw the Russians and Georgians playing each other in volleyball in Beijing whilst Russian tanks had invaded Georgia. Sport and politics should ultimately remain separate in my opinion.

I agree with the actions taken by French President Francois Hollonde, German President Joachim Gauck and most recently that of President Obama, as they stated they will not attend the games. America is in fact sending a delegation that will not contain the President, Vice President, First Lady or any former Presidents. Although I argued previously that sport and politics should remain separate, there is a crossover between the two in diplomatic circles. We saw Putin light the cauldron in Moscow when the flame arrived from Greece. He is aiming to showcase himself and Russia to the world with this just as London, Beijing and Vancouver did. There will be the state dinners and photo opportunities of world leaders in the stands watching their nations compete. By boycotting the games it is a snub to the politics of Russia and not to that of the games. It is Hollande saying to Putin I will not support you in hosting the games whilst you are pursuing this law. The more leaders that do this, the more Putin will be isolated in his moment in the spotlight of the world.

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Finally I would argue that we can make more of an impact by standing up to Russia individually rather than calling for a boycott. Picture the scene. It is the medals ceremony and on the podium we have an athlete who is collecting their gold medal. In solidarity with the LGBT community the athlete has painted their nails in rainbow colours, or has brought on a rainbow flag. The image in the press will be of this athlete holding their medal with their rainbow coloured finger tips holding onto the medal. That is a powerful image. We saw this exact thing at the World Athletics championship in Moscow as two Swedish athletes, including high jumper Emma Green Tregaro, painted their nails rainbow coloured. This was the image splashed across the media. It was subtle but effective.

rainbow sochi


This prompted Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva to say she agreed with the law suppressing gay rights. This quite rightly caused a backlash, but I argue that the more the world sees these warped ideas coming out, the more we can criticise and question what on earth they are on about. Their ignorance becomes the story, not the fact that Russia is hosting the games. If the athletes are then arrested for promoting gay rights, will the world media then hold the police force to account? Will awkward questions not be asked? Will Russia not seem petty and immature? With regards to Claire Balding, if she is arrested for being a gay presenter on TV in Russia, will this not cause public outrage, needless to say diplomatic tensions between Russia and the UK?

So I argue that the political side to Sochi 2014 should be boycotted by the world leaders, isolating Putin in his moment of self glory, but we should not punish those who have worked so hard for this moment. We should share in their triumph and share their pain in loss. To the athletes I say subtle support can create a powerful image of defiance. A sign can provide hope to the suppressed and the world can be directed to the madness that is this law. Our voices will be much louder coming from inside the stadiums and out to the world rather than from our own nations into the wilderness that is Russia.

About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate