The seemingly serene Black Sea resort town of Sochi in Russia — the site of the upcoming Winter Olympics — has come under intense scrutiny following President Vladimir Putin’s recent ban on “gay propaganda” in the country. The move has transformed the rain-swept Russian city into a hotbed of dispute and has sparked uproar in the international community.
Now enter Canada: a nation that boasts, humbly, of course, a populace of winter sport aficionados and a glimmering track record of freedom and equality. A boycott would have seemed like the right thing to do in the wake of such prejudice. However, with that option having long been dismissed and our athletes preparing to head to the games regardless, our nation’s role in this ever-growing tangle of socio-political unease has become harder to delineate.
While the oppression of Russia’s LGBTQ community is undoubtedly appalling, the Olympics are not the proper platform to advocate for their liberation, nor explicitly criticize the regime.
For one, this is an international sporting event where politics have no place. It would be both unwise and unfair on our part to push men and women, who have endured years of rigorous athletic training, into the fray. Confiscating their hard-earned opportunity for the sake of engendering a change in Putin’s heart, a prospect that seems highly unlikely, would be unwarranted.
Using the Olympics as a stage for protest is not only impractical, it is also extremely dangerous.
The state of Russia’s security in recent days has not been without controversy. Any threat to national safety and stability is currently handled by SORM (the System of Operative-Investigative Measures): an invasive, “Big-Brother”-esque government surveillance system designed to intercept telephone and internet communications.
Calling Putin out for his unabashed bigotry and irrational political agenda, however just it may seem, would only place the athletes in jeopardy. With their privacy compromised, any conversations deemed defamatory can be used as grounds for fines or arrest. It would be far more reasonable to leave the peacemaking in the hands of peacemakers than to use civilians as vehicles for social change — especially in circumstances where safety is critical.
The Olympic Winter Games should not be Canada’s attempt to teach a lesson in human rights. Rather than aiming to right Putin’s wrongs as outsiders, we must work towards showing Russia’s LGBTQ community that we stand firmly by them as fellow human beings; that we are not only champions of winter sport, but also of equal rights.
As the spotlight shifts from matters of state to matters of sport in the coming weeks, it is our responsibility not to provoke dispute, but to display ourselves as a country that treats its people with the equality they deserve.
While change for the Russian people can only come from within, we as a participating nation in the Winter Olympics could be a catalyst.
Dilan Somanader is a first-year student studying applied science and engineering.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has had many opportunities to promote greater tolerance and inclusion of LGBTQ athletes by condemning homophobic actions, but has remained decidedly timid. One opportunity came after considering removing Yelena Isinbayeva — the mayor of the Sochi Olympic village, an honorary but still highly visible position — for making homophobic comments last August at the World Championships in Athletics. Isinbayeva was quoted saying: “It’s disrespectful to our country, disrespectful to our citizens… we consider ourselves like normal, standard people, we just live boys with women, girls with boys.” Although she later retracted her comments and clarified, the IOC said nothing.
At an event that The Varsity organized last Wednesday — “How to be an Ally During the Sochi Olympics” — professors Brenda Cossman and Bruce Kidd both expressed their disappointment at the IOC’s failure to take a more decisive stance on gay rights in that country. It results in athletes being put in the terrible position where they are being threatened for speaking out, without a solid guarantee from the IOC that the committee will stand up for them.
Professor Cossman opened the conversation by stressing the inherently political nature of the Olympics. The games have always been used as a platform for countries to make a political stance; by saying that they aren’t, one is denying the Olympics’ very nature. Acknowledging sports and politics as inextricably interlinked is the first step to being an ally to LGBTQ athletes.
Nevertheless, many try to separate politics from sport. Professor Kidd expressed a wariness for such attitudes, which result in the Olympics being reduced to simply the pursuit of medals, while disregarding pertinent social issues that are as intrinsic to the games as the competition itself. One cannot forget that the Olympic charter explicitly states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
While participants should tread with caution, there are ample opportunities for delegations to creatively engage in protest. For example, the United States is sending three openly gay athletes to represent the United States at the opening and closing ceremonies. Germany’s official uniforms, while officially having nothing to do with gay rights, are as close to rainbow-coloured as you can get.
Such pointed snubs are much-needed reminders that discrimination within sports is unacceptable. We need these courageous acts to remind us that, as spectators, commentators, and students, we have a responsibility to encourage and foster a more tolerant environment.
As such, the international community needs to keep promoting inclusion and tolerance after the games, when the Olympic spotlight is gone. While athletes from all over the world will be living in the shadow of Russia’s anti-gay laws during these few weeks in February, one needs to remember that millions live under such intolerance for 365 days a year.
One way to do so would be to amend the Olympic charter to explicitly list sexual orientation in its discrimination clause. Outside of the Olympic sphere, awarding prestigious sporting events to countries respectful of athletes’ rights and freedoms can make a difference. Decisions such as FIFA’s to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar, where homosexual activity is punishable by imprisonment, is a bad move. It says that homophobia isn’t being treated seriously enough in the sporting world.
Sonia Liang is a second-year student at Trinity College studying English and political science.