Leaving the torch in the wrong hands

By Kate Jacobson

Over the break, the five coloured rings marking the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics started appearing on TV. The games draw nearer alongside the controversy created by the Russian government’s remarks towards the LGBT community. With the opening ceremonies drawing closer, the opportunity for a boycott has slipped away much to the disappointment of many social justice activists.

Public opinion on the matter seems firmly divided into two camps — those who believe athletes and staff from visiting nations should take the opportunity to engage in symbolic acts of protest, and those who believe the nature of the Olympics should be fundamentally apolitical. Unfortunately, the latter hope is nothing but a fantasy.

The strongest argument in favour of protest is that it’s the safest way for pro-gay demonstrations to take place in Russia. Russian PresidentVladimir Putin may have made some questionable decisions over the years, and his current rhetoric is inflammatory, but there isn’t a chance in hell the Russian government would risk the international retribution bound to follow should they jail a member of a foreign sporting delegation.

Nor should Canadian meekness deter us from taking a stand. If our boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is any indicator, Canada has little historical trepidation with making the Olympics a political matter. But by refusing to boycott Sochi, the Canadian government makes clear that the wellbeing of LGBT Russians is unworthy of our country’s concern. By failing to raise any form of outcry, empty as it might seem, the Harper government is portraying Canadians not as neutral bystanders but as apathetic to human rights violations.

History remembers the athletes who get to show up. Jesse Owens might have crossed the finish line first in 1936 to the consternation of white supremacists, but it’s easy to forget that the same American Olympic team benched their Jewish athletes to pacify the Nazi regime. We often hear about the so-called politicization of the Olympics, that the sacrosanct spectacle of physical prowess is becoming wrongfully overshadowed by international politics.

This argument lacks compassion and common sense. In many ways, the Olympics exists as a political event first and a sporting event second. Our desire to see a ball or puck whacked around should never lead us to ignore real problems in the host country or our own.

The Olympics have often served as a boiling point for social evolution. In Mexico City 1968, a Czechoslovakian gymnast turned away from the Soviet flag as the anthem was played. She was later celebrated not for her gymnastics medals, but for her unwavering support for Czechoslovakian democratization movements in the face of a violent Soviet invasion.

Those same Olympics were remembered for the black power salutes of American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised black gloved hands clenched in fists to the sky during the national anthem as a symbol of protest against racial inequality. They were later expelled from the games even as International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage blathered that the Nazi salutes he had permitted in Berlin, 1936 were gestures of nationalism, and therefore more appropriate than the black power salute.

The 2008 Olympic torch relay was marred by protests at China’s human rights record, and in 2012 current IOC president Jacques Rogge refused to hold a moment of silence on the anniversary of the Munich Massacre, despite prominent international pressure. The games have never been apolitical by any stretch of the imagination. I would be ashamed if they were: to be apolitical in the face of injustice means being passive and cowardly.

A boycott would not have changed the homophobia undercutting Russian society. But it would have been better than nothing. In the end, the Olympics are always political and the debate over whether to boycott Sochi had to happen, redundant as it was. The human rights of a group that has been marginalized in their own country are more important than winning a gold medal in hockey.

True, the comfort and support that gestures and little acts of protest can provide to a marginalized group are small and are often swept away in the games’ quest for perfect physical specimens. With hindsight, these symbolic acts will appear futile and too late. But if we go to the Olympics, we should go with conviction — with LGBT athletes, staff and coaches unafraid of the hostility they might encounter.

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