THE BLOG

Should We Boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics?

06/02/2014 13:37 GMT | Updated 07/04/2014 10:59 BST

The Cambridge Union Society's Press Officer, Oliver Jackson, argues why the UK and all other 87 nations currently participating should boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics.

On Friday 7 February the 22nd Winter Olympics will kick off in Sochi, Russia. Our TV screens and Facebook feeds will be covered in updates and news from a sporting event hundreds of miles away that, directly, doesn't actually impact us at all. Yes, should the UK win a few medals then we will no doubt experience no small amount of national pride and prestige (see Amy Williams' extraordinary success in skeleton racing at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics) but this will, in a short amount of time, all die down into background noise, as indeed it does every time. The athletes taking part and the die-hard fans who travel to Sochi to see their favourite sportsperson compete will have had an extraordinary, possibly even life-changing experience, but for the overwhelming majority it will be just another sporting event with very little special meaning or significance.

So far so good. In this respect Sochi is no different to any other global sporting event, and of course this is absolutely not a reason to boycott. However, there are groups of people for whom the Sochi Olympics are impacting their lives directly and malevolently. I speak of Russia's LGBT+ community, a community that has been living under no small amount of oppression since the enaction of Putin's "antigay" law late last June banning the promotion of information about "non-traditional" sexuality. Ironically, this law violates the Olympic Charter, which states that "any form of discrimination... on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement" (6th Fundamental Pinciple of Olympism) and that the International Olympic Committee's role is, among other duties, "to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement" (article 2-6).

This homophobic law effectively makes it illegal to talk to anyone under the age of 18 about homosexuality. It also makes it illegal to suggest that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships. Universally condemned, in the months since its enaction it has seen multiple arrests of gay rights activists, a huge surge in hate crimes against homosexuals, and follow-up legislation banning gay pride marches (in Moscow, such parades have been banned for 100 years). It is the state effectively sanctioning homophobia, and has been described as encouraging the worst human rights climate in Russia since the end of the Soviet era. The Mayor of Sochi has declared that "there are no homosexuals in my town" and in July 2013 the head of the Russian Orthodox Church (of which 80% of Russians are members) Patriarch Kirill declared that same-sex marriage was "a very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse", a claim that chimes with a recent UKIP counsellor's claim that same-sex marriage is to blame for all the recent flooding in the UK.

Russia is the country that, on Friday, will be hosting an international sporting event. A country that refuses to acknowledge the basic freedoms of roughly 10% of its citizens will be at the centre of the world's attention. For the next five weeks, until the end of the Winter Paralympics, we will be seeing news from Russia every single day. And it won't be open and transparent news either - foreign journalists are banned form reporting on anything other than approved Olympic events. Any journalist reporting on the 2,000 locals forced from their homes to make room for the Olympic park, or the thousands-strong army presence there to maintain control, or the horrifically poor state of the park itself (there is currently no running water in many of the buildings put up for foreign tourists), or the fact that many Russians are banned from entering the "controlled" and "forbidden" zones in case they disturb the tourists, will have their visa revoked and be put straight on a plane back home.

Western governments have condemned Russia for the last seven months, drawing attention to her horrific human rights record and homophobic actions. However, there is nothing to make Russia pay any attention to these objections - why should she? Putin knows that there is nothing that the West can really do to put pressure on him, and any sanctions or trade limitations or suchlike that the West could use to draw attention to Russian actions would only economically disadvantage the poorest in Russian society. The people at the top, the ones in control, would be unaffected.

The Sochi Winter Olympics are a unique opportunity to change this. For the first time in a generation comes an event that Russia has staked a lot on and really cares about. For it to run smoothly, for the mountain of dirt to be swiftly brushed under the carpet, Russia needs international cooperation. Currently, despite their empty noises about condemning Russian actions, everybody is planning to attend. Well, Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and David Cameron aren't going to go, but then they're not really necessary for the event to go ahead. Boycotting Sochi would send out an incredibly strong signal to the world that we will not tolerate this sort of behaviour to our fellow human beings. It would be a media catastrophe for Russia, both within its borders and internationally, and would demonstrate how strongly the international movement feels about LGBT+ issues. An end to the boycott could occur once Putin has repealed his homophobic legislation, resulting in a positive outcome that would benefit millions of people across Russia. Boycott Sochi and show Russia that we will not stand for her repressive actions.