Political change and the Olympic Games



The upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi has been in the news a lot recently. The controversy, as you will already know, is a result the introduction of another law discriminating against the LGBT community in Russia—Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation, the so-called “gay propaganda” law. [1] This law will allow the government to fine anyone who spreads propaganda about “non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. (The meaning of “propaganda” and “nontraditional sexual relations” is left quite ambiguous.) Given the insistence of Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko that competing athletes and visiting spectators must obey the laws of the country, there has been some disagreement about what to do. There are different levels of concern being given priority in the media, some more pertinent from an ethical perspective than others.

Here’s a spoiler: The trivial concerns have to do with the politics of the Olympic Games themselves; the real concern is with the harm to people’s lives in Russia.

Trivial Concerns:

1) The Potential Disqualification of Athletes: Rule 50(3) of the International Olympic Committee’s Charter states,

\”No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas\”

The IOC has stated that it will continue to uphold this rule, as a means of separating sports and politics. Athletes who violate Rule 50(3) can be disqualified, or have their medals taken away. This can be seen as severely restricting the options available to athletes who want to compete, but don’t want to support (or be seen to support) Russia’s laws. Given that Article 6.21 will be enforced outside official Olympic grounds, athletes and spectators would risk fines and open hostility (including violence) if they dissent elsewhere.

This is a problem that is internal to the Olympic games. I think that an athlete who wants to compete, but also feels strongly that the laws are wrong [2], should wait until his or her event is over, and then express his or her opinions. The result might be the loss of a medal, but the athlete will still have participated in the competition (and done well if they won a medal). That can’t be taken away. Wouldn’t participation that officially comes to nothing be better than no competition at all? Also, if large numbers of athletes are being disqualified, it might also force the IOC to rethink some of its policies. The games would happen, but in a certain sense be a complete failure.

2) The Un-Olympian Nature of the Law: In a similar vein to (1), the legitimate fear that LGBT athletes might be assaulted, or otherwise unsafe, conflicts with the Fourth Fundamental Principle of Olympianism (from the IOC Charter), which reads,

\”The practice of sport is a human right. [Let’s ignore the difficulty with that assertion.] Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.\”

Again, the fact that there is a conflict with the Olympic Charter is a rather trivial matter. What we should care about is the potential unjust harms that might be inflicted on athletes and spectators.

3) The Location of the Games isn’t meant to be a Political Choice: But, of course it is. And as such, here are two questions that need to be answered:

Should the location of the games be restricted to only those countries with satisfactory human rights practices?
If yes to (1), how should we understand ‘satisfactory’?

The proposals to move, cancel, or boycott the Sochi winter games almost all assume that the answer to (1) is yes, but don’t give an answer to (2). This leaves us in a funny place with respect to the future location of the games and indeed the politics of the games themselves (how political do we want them to be?). For example, a human rights court in Brazil, the country set to host the next summer Olympics, has recently approved a piece of legislation that will allow counsellors in the country to treat homosexuality as a disease. It will also allow psychologists to talk publicly about homosexuality in a negative light. In many ways, Brazil is far more progressive than Russia with regard to LBGT rights, but this is clearly discriminatory legislation. It might, for instance, allow that openly gay students at public schools be sent to the school counsellor for that reason. Should we also boycott the Brazilian games? Or seek to have them moved somewhere else?

Real Concerns

I don’t have a way to assuage the trivial concerns raised by the discussion of Sochi. I’d love to believe that some balance between forced ‘neutrality’ and complete partisanship can exist in the Olympics; that we can have a peaceful international sporting competition; and that a boycott of the games coupled with a restriction on their location in the future would make a difference. [3]

We’ve been in this position before (think of the outcry caused by China’s winning its bid for the 2008 games) but the games have gone on. More importantly, the games have gone on without a significant decrease in the practices that have been found objectionable. When we come down to it, the Olympic Games just aren’t an appropriate vehicle for political change. The amount of real work they can do is much more limited that we seem to believe. (Do people really believe an Olympic boycott will change anything?) Where we have an international sporting event, or whom we allow to participate, shouldn’t be the way we pressure countries to change their detestable human rights practices. Not only is it likely that those practices will continue after the games, but the politics of the games themselves get in the way of constructive discussion. None of this is to say that demonstrations at the games, or a boycott, wouldn’t be an effective way of making people pay attention to the real issue; but that’s all it can do.

We’re paying attention now. Forget the Olympics, and let’s start talking about how to make a real change.


[1] Recall that the highest court in Moscow upheld a 100-year ban on gay pride parades (in Moscow) in 2012, same-sex partnerships are not recognized, same-sex marriages are not allowed, and there are no anti-discrimination laws in any area.

[2] The assumption here is that going to the Olympics but not doing anything in protest would make the athlete complicitous with the laws.

[3] But, how many possible host countries would that leave us? How do we define ‘satisfactory’?