For National Pride, Let's Boycott Putin's Olympics

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For the endless handwringing about Russia's reprehensible anti-gay laws, it is perhaps surprising that not a single athlete — let alone any national team — is boycotting the Sochi Winter Olympics.

A handful of second-tier international politicians are declining to attend — the vice-president of the European Commission, the French Foreign Minister, the German President (not Chancellor) — but only some have explicitly used Russia's human rights record as the reason for their absence.

But if athletes and officials are sincere in their disapproval of Russia's treatment of its own citizens — particularly LGBTIQ people — they should boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics. Australia, in particular, is in a strong position to do so.

A boycott would be not be carried out with the hope of affecting change upon Russian law, an unlikely prospect due to Putin's tendency to frame Russian values as inherently different to those of the progressive West. Rather, it would be a principled refusal to tacitly endorse a regime with such flagrant disregard for Australia's values of tolerance and fair treatment.

Beyond the standard justifications, which could easily apply to a number of Western countries, there are a range of Australia-specific reasons for a boycott.

In terms of our position on the international stage, Australia is a moderately influential, respected middle-ground player: not exactly a superpower, but we're in the G20. Despite any national inferiority complexes, other governments really do pay attention to Australia, so at risk of wading into a pool of jingoism, a boycott would potentially build a reputation for Australia as the country who said no to Putin: a country capable of pulling the plug on supporting unsavoury foreign governments.

Realistically, a boycott would do more to aid our sense of national identity than actually participating in Sochi. Australia does not have the investment in the Winter Games that many northern countries who experience "real winter" do — the government only spends $3 million per year on a team and, generally speaking, Australians just do not care for the Winter Olympics.

Snow sports are considered more of an expensive blue-blood weekend activity for a geographically limited section of the population than part of the national sporting culture. Despite an improved performance at recent Winter Olympics, Australian participation is closer to a mild amusement than the major source of public pride that many northern countries feel with regards to ice hockey teams. Case in point, Steven Bradbury's everybody-fell-over speed-skating gold medal. There is intense disinterest among the audience: the Winter Olympics broadcast is in such low demand that it was relegated to the floundering fourth-place Network Ten, who didn't even want it in the first place.

The micro-protests of other progressive nations — directed at Russia's "homosexual propaganda" laws — have been feeble. The German team's rainbow-ish uniforms vaguely constitute a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the LGBTIQ community, one that poses no real risk to the athletes. Weaker still is the decision by the Australian bobsled team and various others to sport Principle 6 Campaign logos on their outfits, named after the International Olympic Committee's non-discrimination clause, which conflicts with Russian laws. After all, nothing says "I believe that the IOC has failed dismally in adhering to its own principles" better than participating in the IOC's second-largest event while wearing an iron-on patch that alludes to your slight disdain for Vladimir Putin.

Such timid assertions represent athletes and teams having their cake and eating it — doubtless, they are honest in their disapproval of the Russian human rights, but they want to compete too. Ideally, some pro-gay athletes could use their moment on the podium to break out a pride flag or make some other statement, à la John Carlos in 1968, especially considering that Russian state apparatuses would probably be loath to arrest a foreign competitor. However, the laws against pro-gay statements also apply to foreign athletes and with entire national teams being counselled against any overt pro-gay statements, it seems far less likely that any individual would take such a political stance.

If Winter Olympians compete in a quiet, well-behaved manner (as almost all of them certainly will) they are subtly validating the Putin regime. Athletes are the currency of the Olympics: without them, the Games can't command huge corporate sponsorships and hefty spending from the influx of foreigners. Fewer athletes means fewer spectators, and everything else — such as which politicians or celebrities attend — irrelevant. As such, an Olympian refusing to compete is more likely to garner controversy both within and without Russia and make a bold statement than participating, landing eighth place and doing it while quietly wearing a Principle 6 Campaign logo.

Of course, any action that undermines the Games brings out Olympic apologists in droves, trotting out the tired old line that the Olympics "belong to the athletes and not to the politicians". Too bad that this quote from American Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage dates from the 1930s, far before the concept of "the personal is the political". Worse, it was made in reference to the Nazi Party-run 1936 Berlin Olympics.

By participation in Sochi, progressive nations are validating Putin and his sub-human treatment of queer Russians. The message from these countries seems to be that, yes, Putin isn't great, but not being able to win medals for curling is worse.

Even though an Australian boycott is hardly likely to bring down the Winter Olympics, it wouldn't hurt for Russia to not have the support of the entire Western world in Sochi.

At this late stage, an Australian boycott of Sochi is more of a flight-of-fancy rather than a real prospect (plus, we know how Tony Abbott feels about boycotts). Yet a boycott is clearly preferable to indirectly supporting countless breaches of gay (and other human) rights through fruitless participation at Sochi, and it could come with the side-effect of providing both Australians and our athletes a sense of pride at having taken a moral stance that would be evident on a global scale.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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