3 reasons not to boycott the Olympics over Russia's anti-gay law

There are better ways to fight for gay rights

Boycotting Sochi
(Image credit: AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis)

Outraged civil rights activists are urging the U.S. and other nations to boycott the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year to protest Moscow's sweeping new anti-gay law, which bans homosexual "propaganda." However, both President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have rejected the idea.

Obama says he's offended by the Russian law, but doesn't think it's appropriate to tell hard-working athletes that they can't go to the Games. "One of the things I’m really looking forward to," Obama said at a press conference last week, "is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we're seeing there."

Russian leaders have assured the International Olympic Committee that visiting athletes and spectators won't be affected by the law. The IOC would naturally be loath to cancel the Games, but IOC President Jacques Rogge has pointedly reminded us that the Games' charter states unambiguously that the Olympics must be "open to all, free of discrimination."

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Here are three reasons why a boycott might not be the best way to protest Russia's anti-gay law:

1. Olympic boycotts don't work

"Russia's new law is horrific, as is the country's repeated failure to protect its gay citizens from beatings, torture and killings," says Christian Schneider at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But as we've seen in the past, Olympic boycotts rarely achieve their stated goals."

President Jimmy Carter, for example, pushed a boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow in 1980 to pressure the Soviet Union to withdraw from Afghanistan, but the soldiers stayed for another decade. The only concrete impact came four years later, when the Soviet Union retaliated by staying away from the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Furthermore, a boycott could make life worse for Russia's LGBT community, "as they could be scapegoated for a diminished event," says Schneider.

2. Athletes, not Russia, would be punished

"Like boycotting a British-owned vodka because it has a Russian name," says Cyd Zeigler at MSNBC, "nations choosing to stay home for the Olympics only hurt hard-working young athletes, not Vladimir Putin."

Indeed, punishing Russia directly is an option for the IOC. "The IOC must ban Russia from participating in these Olympics so long as it is in clear violation of the Olympic Charter," says Zeigler.

3. The world would miss a chance to celebrate gay pride

Not all gay-rights activists favor a boycott. Some say the better alternative is making sure that the Sochi Games are the "gayest Olympics ever." If gay athletes are willing to compete in Russia, says Elizabeth Plank at Policymic, the rest of the world should focus on cheering them on, to show support and ensure their safety in a country where waving a rainbow flag can now get you arrested.

"Won't a gay athlete literally wearing pride on his sleeve send a more powerful message than stopping him from participating in the competition in the first place?" Plank asks.

Just as Jesse Owens embarrassed Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals in Berlin's 1936 Games, "a rainbow flag-wearing snowboarder from the United States" would send the best message of all to Vladimir Putin, says Chris Trejbal at The Broad Side.

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