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From Russia With Hate: The Case for Sporting Boycotts

14/08/2013 12:41 BST | Updated 13/10/2013 10:12 BST

On 11 June, the State Duma, Russia's federal legislative body, passed a national law banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors." The law will ban the discussion of homosexual relationships or the advocacy of LGBTQ rights in any public or private forums in which under eighteens may be, and apply as equally to tourists as they do to Russian nationals. Actions which fall under the law include protests, shows of LGBTQ pride and discussions about safe-sex practice with young people. They have already included the arrest of Danish nationals who were discussing same-sex relations with youths at a Summer Camp. The prospective targets of the legislation will also include athletes, supporters and journalists attending next year's controversial Sochi Winter Olympic games.

Should Sochi 2014 go ahead, there will be no 'Pride House', a venue used in the Vancouver 2010 and London 2012 Games which offered a community centre and support for LGBTQ competitors and fans, in the Olympic Village. Blake Skjellerrup, a gay New Zealander figure-skater, who has said he will compete and wear a rainbow-flag pin during the opening ceremony, would face arrest were he claim solidarity with closeted youths. And should any athletes seek to actively speak out against homophobic violence and oppression in Russia, the IOC has confirmed they will be punished under Rule 50 of their charter which states that "the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration"- even if the purpose of that demonstration is to defend the rights of roughly one-tenth of humanity to survive and to thrive. The IOC, the Sochi organising committee, and the Russian government refuse to guarantee the security and rights to expression of its participants and supporters: on that basis alone, these games are reprehensible and should be foregone.

In reality, that will not happen: the timeframe would not allow for the games to be reorganised at such short notice, and a smoothly run event is more important to the corrupt and corroded IOC than is the protection of the fundamental rights of its delegates. So what can be done in the future? And what options remain in the short term?

The answer to the first of these questions is to be far more selective when allocating hosting rights. Nations vie for the right to hold major sporting events. They do not do so exclusively in the hope of financial gain, for that is far from guaranteed: Quebec province only finished paying off the debts incurred by the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics at the turn of the millennium, whilst South Africa did not witness the projected tourism and infrastructural boons from hosting the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Rather they host to put on a show for the world, to announce their status as major international players both to domestic and to foreign audiences. In doing so they allow questions about their country to be pushed aside as eyes around the globe shift to those going harder, faster, stronger than ever before, and as spectators marvel at the organisational prowess of the event with little thought for, as in Beijing 2008, the homes that were cleared and the journalists who were hounded to facilitate it. Giving the right to host is tacit endorsement of a regime, as is the attendance of participating nations.

The notion that sport and politics exist independent of one another is false. Governments appoint sports ministers; presidents and politicians are involved in the bidding process; successful athletes stand on the podium weeping tears of joy as their flags ripple from the stadium's flagpole as their national anthems play. The World Athletics Championships currently underway in Moscow, has seen a speech from Russian President Vladimir Putin during the opening ceremony and a marathon route which takes in the imposing Kremlin. Sport is politicised, and organisations need to be wary of the ways in which they allow questionable regimes to project their power when they host events.

If we cannot prevent Russia from hosting the 2014 Games, then what can we do? Refuse to send our teams. Barack Obama rejected such calls, claiming it would be unfair on the "bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed". The implication of such a call is that the success of skiers, skaters and curlers is more important than advancing the cause of LGBTQ individuals and communities the world over, an offensive position which also undermines the ability of governments to lobby oppressive regimes for change. The counter-argument is that if a gay athlete wins the gold in a homophobic setting then Neanderthal prejudices will be chipped away at. That first of all assumes that the athlete will be allowed to freely and safely participate, which cannot be guaranteed in the case of Russia. It would also require that those successes were reported, that when they wore their pride on their sleeves, that Russia cameras would reproduce those images, rather than shutting them down, or, worse, focussing on the salacious speculative details of the athlete's sex life, labelling them as paedophiles or genetic aberrations, as Russian media frequently does when reporting on the lives of gay celebrities, most recently Stephen Fry.

Sporting boycotts has been effectively used in the past. The refusal to allow apartheid South Africa to participate in international sporting events was effective in showing international disgust against the de Klerk regime. On a domestic level, the denial of white middle-class South Africans the ability to watch their boys participate in international test cricket (despite the national disgraces of Geoffrey Boycott and Mike Gatting's embargo-breaking 'rebel tours' in 1982 and 1990 respectively) was contemporarily cited as one of the biggest grievances of that particular power-broker with their government. Internationally , the embarrassment caused when 32 nations boycotted the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in disgust at Lady Thatcher's continuing appeasement of the de Klerk regime, and the way in which it increased the prominence of the plight of black South Africans on the international agenda was a key driver of political change.

In 2008, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, stood at Lords Cricket Ground and said: "We know that politics and sport have an important relationship. We indicated that the sports boycott played a crucial part in our liberation, and now sport is playing a pivotal part in helping to build South Africa up to be the rainbow nation". In 2013 and 2014, a show of the strength of international feeling against homophobic oppression by boycotting the Sochi Winter Olympics, will be a crucial and potent message of support for all those who stand under the rainbow flag.