The International Olympic Committee (IOC) selected Sochi in Russia, an authoritarian state, for the 2014 Winter Olympics. What could possibly go wrong? With just 174 days until the opening ceremony we are beginning to find out. In 1980 the United States and many other nations boycotted the Moscow games because during the lead-up, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
Putin is updating Russia’s laws for the event. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Federation repealed the Soviet laws that restricted the civil rights of Russian citizens including the law that made homosexuality a crime.
Under the Putin regime, the government is restoring parts of those laws so it can “maintain order and protect its culture” before foreigners converge on the nation and bring their bad habits with them. One of those “western bad habits” is homosexuality.
The government passed a vague law that makes it a crime for same-sex couples to engage in any show of affection in public like holding hands, embracing, or kissing. It makes it a criminal offense to display “propaganda” that extols homosexuality. This includes pictures, rainbow flags, or literature depicting gays in a good light. The law is so vague that citizens or police officers can use it to arrest anyone, and beat them if they “resist arrest.”
Last month, the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church called same-sex marriage “a very dangerous sign of the apocalypse.” This pronouncement and the new law have ginned up gay-hatred and sparked a rash of violent attacks on gay citizens in Russia.
A spokeswoman for Sochi went on western TV to assure visitors there will be no problems if visitors respect Russia’s laws. She stated most Russians consider homosexuality to be a “disorder” and the government must shelter children from being exposed to it and the propaganda that glorifies that lifestyle. She said most people on earth except the U.S and the West consider homosexuality to be wrong.
Polls seem to support her. An overwhelming 88% of Russians support the gay propaganda ban, according to a survey conducted by the All-Russian Public Opinion Center. An April survey found that 35% of Russians believed that homosexuality was a disease and 43% believed that it was a bad habit, a result of poor parenting or a lack of discipline, or a symptom of abuse.
On the “Tonight Show” Jay Leno told the president “Suddenly, homosexuality is against the law. I mean, this seems like Germany: Let’s round up the Jews. Let’s round up the gays. Let’s round up the blacks. I mean, it starts with that.”
President Obama responded that Russia was not alone in its treatment of gay people; he denounced the legislation and said he expected Mr. Putin and the Russian government to prevent any discrimination in Sochi. He said that boycotting the Olympics would only punish the athletes that have trained hard and want this opportunity to succeed.
Some agree that a boycott would hurt athletes but not protect Russian gays because the regime would continue its behavior after the Olympics. The boycott in 1980 did not change Russian policy in Afghanistan.
In the United States, however, the religious right has sided with Putin. Brian Fischer of the American Family Association said:
"Russia is not being homophobic, it's homorealistic -- the Russian government is trying to take the issue into consideration and establish public policy to contribute to public health, as this lifestyle is not to be promoted, endorsed or granted special legal protection. I think the Russian government is right to be concerned with propaganda on teenagers who are at the age of struggling through sexual identity issue and we should help to channel these urges in productive behavior. Heterosexuality is God's design. Policies that encourage young people to think this are good ideas."
What should be done to express our concerns at the treatment of gays in Russia? Perhaps we should hit the Russian government in its pocketbook by not buying any Russian-made goods including caviar and computer programming. Maybe we should stop travelling to Russia.
Perhaps American fans should pick a neighboring country like Croatia or Czech Republic and watch the games from hotels there instead of going to Sochi depriving Putin ticket revenue. The cameras would show the empty seats. The athletes’ families would display American flags in support of Team USA but standing out more among the empty seats.
Putin’s critics need to understand we do not approve of him. That may embolden them whereas a boycott will give Putin a propaganda tool.