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A Better Way to Boycott the Winter Olympics

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By Mo Cheriet

Russia has long been a place where homosexuality has been considered unacceptable. In June this year, a law was passed that prohibits the spread of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships" to children. In other words, it is illegal to tell children that it's okay to be gay.

The mistreatment of homosexuals in Russia is increasingly coming under scrutiny by western media, especially since Stephen Fry published his open letter to David Cameron asking him to boycott the 2014 Russian Winter Olympics because of the country's general attitude towards LGBT issues. Earlier this year, a man was sexually assaulted with beer bottles before being killed after his sexual preference was discovered, and there have been numerous reports of police brutality at gay-rights protests across Russia. Fry's indignation is both valid and important.

For a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games to stand a chance of making an impact, more teams must commit to it, not just Team GB, and this might be difficult to achieve. Governing sporting bodies will be reluctant to deprive their athletes the opportunity to participate at an Olympic event and upset fans awaiting the spectacle.

Perhaps Fry knew that a boycott is unrealistic, and was deliberately suggested something radical to raise awareness of the issue and derive a more pragmatic solution. At a demonstration outside Whitehall recently, Fry suggested that athletes could instead make a gesture on the podium.

The national governing sporting body The British Skiing and Snowboarding (BSS) work closely with the British Olympic Association (BOA) regarding strategic decisions for snowsport athletes and Team GB. I spoke with Dave Edwards, the organisations CEO, who does not believe that boycotting the Winter Olympics is the appropriate action to take.

"I don't believe that the athletes would support a boycott of that type," he said. "Firstly, there is no history that athletic boycotts have bought about political change. Secondly, a number of the groups that are adversely affected by the legislation within Russia are calling for the games to go ahead to bring the fuel of publicity to the particular issue. Thirdly, the athletes shouldn't be deprived of their opportunity to compete on the world stage as they have been training for many years."

Edwards is also opposed to any expectation placed on athletes to voice their concerns over the matter, saying that "this is a platform for sport, not for political expression."

Rather than placing responsibility on the athletes, it might be more effective for the sponsors of the 2014 games to pull out of their lucrative deals with the IOC. According to the official Olympics website, commercial partnerships generally contribute up to 40% of Olympic revenue. If the corporations that sponsor the Olympics revoked their support then the IOC will take note.

I asked Coca-Cola whether they would reconsider their sponsorship. They said, "We have long been a strong supporter of the LGBT community and have advocated for inclusion and diversity through both our policies and practices. We do not condone human rights abuses, intolerance or discrimination of any kind." However, there was no suggestion that they would withdraw their sponsorship, "We support the ideals of the Olympics and are proud to continue our role in helping to make the Olympics a memorable experience for athletes, fans and communities around the world."

The Olympics are not the only major sporting event being held in Russia this decade. With five years remaining until the FIFA World Cup, will the LGBT mistreatment make FIFA reconsider their stance? FIFA told us that they are awaiting clarification on the laws: "In the context of the adoption of the federal law 'on prohibition of propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations' in Russia, FIFA has asked the Russian authorities for clarification and more details on this new law."

Despite FIFA's comments, the World Cup will likely remain in Russia and the same corporations will sponsor this event too. So perhaps it's time to start targeting these brands directly. It may be too late for a boycott to take effect before the Winter Olympics, but if we started drinking Pepsi and eat Whoppers instead of Big Macs, perhaps the current Winter Olympic sponsors wouldn't be so eager (or able) to sponsor future events. Subsequently, event organisers may be more prudent awarding hosting right.

A caveat that we must all bear in mind is that the western politicians don't have the authority to tell other countries how to govern, but the general populous can make their feelings known and felt. Money talks loudest of all in these situations, so now is the time for consumers to start putting their money where their mouth is.

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