The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia ended Sunday (Feb 23), much to the relief of networks that aren’t NBC, and to the chagrin of people who were finally, slowly, falling in love with the idea of seeing a different permutation of skiing every night.
This year, the Games weren’t just a field for (ideally) friendly competition between 88 nation’s best athletes. They were a cultural battleground for the international LGBT rights debate. The 2013 passage of a Russian law banning “gay propaganda,” homonegative speech by President Vladimir Putin, and a string of violent hate crimes led to concerns over the liberties and safety of participants and attendees at the games. In response, numerous US organizations called for a boycott, while celebrity and athlete advocates endorsed the Principle 6 campaign, which called for an end of discrimination, systematic and otherwise, of LGBTQ athletes.
It’s easy to forget now, but for a moment, a full US boycott of the Games seemed like a real possibility. Such a measure would have been precedented only by our participation in a 30-nation boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games in the midst of the Cold War. In 2014, what happened instead was what the New York Times called a “political boycott,” in which several Western leaders openly abstained from attending the Games, but sent their athletes to compete.
In times of sociopolitical conflict, the Olympics have been the site of powerful historic moments, including Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’ black power salute and Jesse Owen’s triumph in Berlin, but LGBTQ advocacy efforts were essentially backed into a corner this year. The International Olympics Committee restricted participants from making political protests, effectively silencing any athletes who had expressed intent to represent advocacy at the Games. NBC left allusions to the controversy out of their coverage.
All parties with a platform to speak out against oppressive and discriminatory policies were silent. It’s understandable: to have not been would have been an immense risk. Many athletes only get one shot at the most important event in their sport, and why put the singular thing you’ve worked for your entire life in jeopardy? And why should NBC lose its multi-billion dollar rights to one of the most powerful television properties?
Here’s why: global change. These people had a chance at being heard by over a billion people and nobody did. If that’s not a missed opportunity, I don’t know what is.
The actual effectiveness of the kind of “speaking out” I’m talking about is certainly disputable, but I honestly believe that global LGBT rights needs a Smith and Carlos moment.
The Olympics aren’t a forum for actual policy change, but they could have been a turning point.
The next three Olympiads: 2016 Rio (summer), 2018 Pyonyang (winter), and 2020 (Tokyo) all take place in nations with somewhat progressive, though very incomplete, civil rights status for LGBTQ+ persons.
However, the 2018 FIFA World Cup brings us back to Russia, and the 2022 iteration of the largest soccer tournament (which has a following comparable to that of the Olympics), takes place in Qatar, where gay foreigners are banned from entry and men engaging in same-sex sexual activity are subject to up to five years imprisonment, and, as recently as 1995, 90 lashes (female same-sex sexual activity is legal). To say nothing of the safety of their athletes, nations that stand in solidarity with the queer community need to take action. Yes, our own civil rights policies are imperfect (order of business #1: getting ENDA passed), but allowing an event of international stature to be hosted in a nation that’s actively seeking to eradicate an entire culture from its borders is simply unacceptable.