Point counterpoint

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In July 2013, Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin signed a law which gave police officers the right to make arrests on the grounds of disseminating “gay propaganda.” A number of other anti-gay laws have since followed under Putin, creating a whirlwind of controversy. Two contributors weigh in on whether a boycott by athletes and nations of the 2014 Sochi Olympics would be a good idea.


Against boycotting Sochi:

Before beginning, I would like to make it clear that I believe that the Russian government’s behaviour is clearly wrong. The Russian anti-gay legislation is a grave human rights violation. Unfortunately, despite this glaring fact, the 2014 Winter Olympics is unlikely to be moved. Many athletes and countries will be forced to make a tough decision: whether or not to boycott the Games. I believe they should not.

Qualifying for the Olympics is no easy feat, and those that do make the cut will probably only do so twice during their career, maybe three times if they’re lucky. Athletes spend their entire lives dreaming about an Olympic gold medal, but they have very few opportunities to realize this goal. If countries boycott the Games entirely, they will be taking away one of the few chances that a competitor gets to reach the pinnacle of athletic success. While a boycott by countries such as Canada or the United States would be detrimental to Russia and the Olympics, the impact would be brief and not very noticeable in the long run. However, the effect it would have on athletes and staff from the boycotting country could be very significant. This is why the decision to participate should be one that each athlete makes individually.

While some athletes will not be comfortable being a part of the Games, for most, it would be a mistake to boycott. If one athlete snubs the Games, another who didn’t originally qualify will surely be willing to step in to replace them. These “replacements” would likely have been just seconds too slow to qualify. Thus, even with boycotts from certain athletes or countries, the level of competition would remain high and the actual product would likely not be significantly worse than what was offered by past games. The Athletes who do want to compete are not who we should be demonizing. Instead, both Russia and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should be punished.

The most effective boycott would be one by the viewers. Don’t watch on television and don’t purchase tickets to the events. If there is Olympic gear for sale, make sure that it stays on the shelves. This would serve the purpose of driving down the attention that these Games receive. Low television ratings and reduced media coverage would send a clear message to the IOC and to the Russian government that we as viewers will not be a part of future Games with similar situations. With all the problems that are surfacing in Brazil in anticipation of the 2014 World Cup, it seems that the IOC may have to make another difficult decision in a few years about leaving a host nation with significant social problems. A viewer boycott, not one by athletes or countries, would set the IOC on a path to making the right choice come 2016.

— Wyatt Fine-Gagné


For boycotting Sochi:

Boycotting the Olympics has been a failure in the past. It did not affect the Soviet Union’s behaviour following the 1980 Olympics. In fact, it only caused a backlash in 1984, where the Soviet Union and 15 other nations declined to attend the Los Angeles Olympics because their athletes could not be guaranteed safety. In the media, it has been largely judged that having a presence in Sochi is better in terms of making a pro-LGBT rights statement than to not be there at all. Still, a boycott has its benefits and should be considered a legitimate choice to make a change to Russia’s new legislation against “homosexual propaganda.”

First, a boycott of the Olympics would mean that Russia’s nationalist propaganda is not seen nor experienced by the world. Jesse Owens, an African-American sprinter chose to participate in the 1936 Berlin Games, and his four gold medals in Nazi Germany were viewed as a triumph in disproving Hitler’s view of a ‘master race’. Unfortunately, the Olympics as an event was construed as a victory for the Third Reich. While showing up to the Games can provide a platform to make a statement, small acts of defiance can only go so far.

Second, the Olympics could be potentially dangerous to athletes and guests to Russia. It is unclear whether Russian officials will really target foreigners at the event, risking strained relations in the international community or even causing a diplomatic crisis. However, we cannot preclude this possibility—the situation should absolutely be approached with caution.

Third, a boycott can occur in more than one way. Pierre Martin, a writer for The Toronto Star, suggested that Canada boycott hockey at the 2014 Olympics because it would send a message to hockey-crazy Russia. Since hockey is a sport in which only a few teams—namely the U.S., Canada, and Russia—dominate the play, not having Canada or the United States attend would render Sochi’s most popular competition meaningless. Boycotting specific sports suggests that there is prominent governmental support for LGBT rights. Not only is the government voicing its opinion against Russia’s legislation, it is also actively supporting LGBT rights and the movement towards equality at home. Also, by boycotting only specific events, many athletes still have the opportunity to have a presence in Sochi and initiate dialogue on the issues.

Finally, doing this shows Russia that its behaviour is unacceptable; nations will not stand by and watch this happen. A study shows that two-thirds of Russia’s population accept and support the new legislation.  Although boycotting may be an extreme action, it ultimately produces a strong message. As actor Stephen Fry said in an open letter to the IOC and British Prime Minister David Cameron, “At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world.” If we attend the Olympics, we will be giving Putin our approval.

— Rebecca Babcock


Editors’ pick: Don’t boycott the Games

Although boycotting the Sochi Olympics would certainly send a powerful message to Russia about their mandate on banning homosexuality, there are other effective methods to make a statement without risking the dreams of athletes around the world. Top-level athletes only have a few opportunities to reach the Olympics, and a boycott of the Games is a brash solution to a complex problem.