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Olympian Bruce Kidd on boycotts and the Olympic Games

The Sochi pavillion at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver (photo by waferboard via Flickr)

With the Sochi Olympics just six months away and Russia's anti-gay laws making headlines around the world, many are calling for action. (Read more about the anti-gay laws in Russia)
Writer Valerie Iancovich asked Olympian, sports historian and human rights activist Professor Bruce Kidd for his thoughts on the possibility of a boycott and the relationship between human rights and the Olympic movement.
What has been your reaction to recent developments out of Russia concerning LGBTQ rights?
It’s outrageous what the Russians are doing. It’s important that the entire sports world puts pressure on the Russian government to repeal these laws, and short of that, insist upon guarantees from the International Olympic Committee that the Games will only go ahead with the full protection of athletes, coaches, officials and spectators. The IOC must tell Putin that during the course of the Olympic Games, Sochi is an Olympic city governed by the Olympic Charter, which prohibits discrimination of every kind, not a Russian city governed by Russian law.
The good news is that it is six months before the Games and this is not a marginal issue; it’s already on the front pages of newspapers like the New York Times.
If Canada and other countries were to boycott the Games, what are the potential outcomes?
Before we resort to a boycott, our first step should be to pursue education and diplomacy. That’s what the Olympics are about. They were founded as a way to bring people from different countries and different perspectives together to talk through differences. Also, athletes—despite their powerful, symbolic status—shouldn’t be the only ones to carry the ball on difficult human rights issues.
Russian authorities have rejected the proposal to replicate the highly-successful Pride Houses of London and Vancouver; if the Games go ahead, how can we create an environment of inclusivity?
When organizers of previous Pride Houses called upon Sochi to create one there, they were told if they set foot into Russia they’d be thrown in jail for the rest of their lives. So the fallback idea is to get countries like Canada, who have hospitality suites in Olympic cities, to turn those suites into Pride Houses. If every country did it for one day, in the 16 days of the Olympics there would be 16 countries that would have different, safe locations for the LGBTQ community. The IOC should make it clear that Olympic Pride Houses are fully consistent with the Olympic Charter, and that individual countries have jurisdiction to do this safely.
What are some other ways to send a pro-equity message and protest these new laws?
As we speak, activists from around the world are meeting in Antwerp, Belgium, for the Out Games to discuss this. Very few people are advocating a boycott. They are advocating that we go to Sochi in a pro-gay, ‘we’re here, we’re queer’ kind of way. We need to insist that the IOC explicitly affirms the LGBTQ community in the Charter.  Another suggestion is to boycott the corporate sponsors; we need to tell them that as long as this foul law remains on the books, we won’t be purchasing these products.
What lessons can we take from past Olympic boycotts and sports and human rights controversies?
It’s important to remember that the long, ultimately effective boycott of apartheid South Africa, which included a suspension of South Africa from the 1964 and 1968 Summer Games, and then full expulsion in 1970, was motivated by a sports issue—the exclusion of the black majority from mainstream sport—and that it was only introduced as a last resort, after diplomacy and peaceful protest failed to deter the apartheid state. By comparison, the boycott of the Moscow Olympics—to get the Soviets out of Afghanistan—had nothing to do with sport; moreover, only athletes were asked to make a statement.  Otherwise, it was business as usual. Canada continued trade and so on.
In 1936, both winter and summer Olympics were in Nazi Germany. There was an international campaign to move the Games outside of Germany, but it had little support apart from Jewish groups and the socialist and communist parties. When the Winter Games opened, there were horrible anti-Semitic signs all over the venues. The president of the IOC went to Hitler and said these have got to come down, that when the Games come to a city, that city becomes an Olympic city, governed by the Olympic Charter. And the signs came down. That precedent has been cited over and over again. At the very least, the IOC should insist that the Sochi Games are conducted under the banner of human rights promised by the Olympic Charter.
Would any development or circumstance warrant cancelling these Olympics?
Yes, if Putin were to say that if a pro-gay person comes to Sochi, they will be imprisoned, then I think that the IOC has got to say then we’re not having an Olympics in 2014. That’s a definite. And in the future, the IOC has got to make its support of human rights much more emphatic.
We’ve got to make full respect of human rights part of the IOC contract with host cities and it needs to clearly state that we will never even entertain a bid from a country that does not respect all aspects of human rights.

Valerie Iancovich is a writer with the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at the University of Toronto.