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Political Change and the Olympic Games

by Luke Davies

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:

  1. Should the location of the games be restricted to only those countries with satisfactory human rights practices?
  2. 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’?

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Hey Luke,

    I agree with you that a boycott of the upcoming winter Olympics in Sochi isn’t a good idea, and probably wouldn’t do much of anything to help advance the cause of improving LGBT rights in Russia. However, from what you write, it does seem that you might agree that the Olympic Games can be an appropriate venue, in some ways, for pushing political change. This can happen in lots of ways other than a boycott. Here’s one: hopefully many athletes will find creative ways to speak out against Russia’s law, and let the people of Russia know that they think this law is wrong, and very different from what they and many others believe in. From what I’ve read, many people in Russia hold views about the nature of ‘being gay’ that are similar to what people in the states and other countries thought in the early part of the 20th century (being gay is a disease, individuals get it from being abused, etc.). If lots of athletes chose to speak out, one positive change might be that the people of Russia will see and learn that much of the world thinks these views are silly and out of touch with reality. That in itself might not lead to immediate political change, but it could have a positive impact.


  2. I don’t believe that boycotting the Olympics will really aid in advancing the LGBT rights. The venue is not a safe place for those of LGBT, imagine competing in a country who believes there’s something wrong with you, that you have a disease that’s just not right whatsoever. Having athletes being disqualified or having their medals taken away is not going to be productive whatsoever, but would merely cause uprisings and disputes. This would be a perfect time to try and make a change though, especially with the world watching. If enough people of the LGBT community competing were affected by Russia’s rules against them, perhaps they could try and make a change. If enough people see that there’s nothing wrong with them and that it’s a normal thing perhaps it could change the minds of the people in countries who are against the LGBT community. It may not change anything completely and definitely, but showing that world that being part of this community is okay, and that it’s truly not hurting anyone might have a positive impact even if it’s just a small impact, it may all add up eventually, and truly make a big change in the long-run.

  3. After reading Luke Davies philosophy blog on Political Change and the Olympic Games, I think that in order to understand Article 6.21 of the Code of the Russian Federation (Russia’s “gay propaganda law”), the public needs to start demanding clarification so the laws are not left ambiguous. By doing so, it would make it easier for countries to decide whether or not they should boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics. This would allow the International Olympic Committee the ability to weigh the pros and cons of Russia hosting the games this winter and in the future. The more that the rest of the world becomes familiar with Russian laws, the easier it will be to determine whether these laws should be changed or rectified so as to make the Olympic Games fair and peaceful for the LGBT community.
    In response to the first trivial concern Luke addresses – the potential disqualification of athletes – and his opinion that athletes should compete in their event then express their opinions on Russia’s laws, is fair but I don’t think it’s very realistic. Although I disagree with Russia’s anti-gay laws, if I were an athlete I would want to compete and still keep my medal if I won. My reason for this is that I would have been training for the Olympics for perhaps my entire life and I wouldn’t want to jeopardize the opportunity at a medal. Due to the fact that I’m not personally a member of the LGBT community, I don’t feel that strongly about the issue. However if my entire country decided to boycott the Olympic Games, I would definitely support their decision, and even go on record saying that I disagree with Russia’s laws. If there were only a few athletes from my country boycotting then I would not follow. Instead, I would try to find alternate methods of protesting that wouldn’t present the threat of losing a medal, for instance, raising community awareness when I returned to my home town. I also feel that Olympic athletes belonging to the LGBT community will not make that much of a deal about Russia’s laws because they won’t want to present themselves as a threat to Russian authorities.
    With regards to the second trivial concern Luke mentions – the un-Olympian nature of the law – and his fear that LGBT athletes might be assaulted, I don’t foresee LGBT athletes or spectators putting themselves in a situation that would put their safety or their lives at risk. Russian authorities will probably not persecute people going against the anti-gay laws with the intent of inflicting them bodily harm. Most of the spectators will be there to enjoy the Games and the majority of the athletes will be there to compete. Although there may be the odd person who will attempt to push the so-called “LGBT envelope”, I don’t feel that the Russian authorities will use any violence against competitors because Russia will be on a global stage. With the whole world looking at Russia, any gay-related assaults would make the country look very bad and only cause unnecessary problems to deal with.
    The third trivial concern that Luke Davies puts forth is the possibility of the location of future Olympic Games being a political choice. In the past, countries have never been limited because of their human rights practices. As a spectator I think that the variety of countries that are selected to host the Games make it more interesting to watch. You get to see or go to countries with a different culture, different traditions, different laws, etc. I sense that it would not be in the true spirit of the Olympics to selectively choose the host country based on criteria that centered on satisfactory human rights practices. After all, the Olympic Games are supposed to offer equal opportunities for all. Such political policies should not be made on an event that isn’t supposed to be political in the first place. If it were to come to that, it would be one vicious circle – we then become the people making unfair restrictions. As for the question Luke brings up about boycotting the upcoming Summer Olympic Games in Brazil because of LGBT discriminatory legislation, I feel that it is too far away into the future to be making any decisions. People should wait to see what happens with the LGBT situation at the Sochi Olympic Games. And then afterwards, perhaps Brazil might consider changing their laws if there are overwhelming protests against Russia’s anti-LGBT rights.
    I would like to conclude my response to this ethics sports blog by stating my speculations on the possible outcome of boycotting the Sochi Olympic Games due to unsatisfactory LGBT rights. I think that such actions might force a change in Russia’s political agenda if the bigger/more influential countries in the world (i.e.) the United States boycotted the Games. However, if only smaller countries boycotted the Games then I don’t believe any major changes would take place – media coverage at the most. I consider any boycott at the Olympic Games would result in a greater loss for the athletes. It would be a major inconvenience for athletes because they will miss their chance at competing and would have to wait another four years (at which point they may be past their prime). Nevertheless, I think that it is still important to discuss and raise awareness about Russia’s unfair LGBT rights. Every little bit will help towards getting the attention of the Russian government and hopefully their sympathy towards the LGBT community.

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