The Winter Olympics are beginning right now in Sochi, Russia, with opening ceremonies set for today, to be followed by competitions with athletes from around the world (including several from the Bay Area) in downhill skiing, bobsled races, and 4,000 varieties of figure skating. But should you be gluing your eyeballs to the screen? Or is it time to boycott?
There are some pretty decent arguments for sitting out this year's games on political grounds.
The most salient seems to be Russia's repressive stance towards LGBT people. A recently enacted law in Russia, "banned 'propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations' and established steep fines for anyone equating the value of same-sex relationships with those between individuals of the opposite sex. Foreigners charged with such “propaganda” could be subject to arrest, 15 days in jail, deportation and fines up to $3,000." Russia's worsening human rights climate goes beyond the legal structures as well. Hate crimes against LGBT people are also on the rise, according to a report from the US State Department. Calls for boycotts of the games have been widespread (even getting a tacit nod from Google) and President Obama's decision to sit out the Opening Ceremony has been interpreted as a snub to Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
But Russia's authoritarian political climate extends beyond its treatment of LGBT rights. In fact, Putin's moves against gay Russians are part of a larger rapprochement between his government, which lacks the economic credibility it once enjoyed, with the Russian Orthodox Church. In search of a narrative of legitimization, Putin has cozied up with nationalist and religious elements in Russia. (That's part of why Russia enacted a ban on adoption by Americans recently). Repression of the nascent political opposition is widespread. The argument for boycotting the Sochi games is relatively straightforward—to deny a stamp of international legitimacy for a dictatorial regime.
But there's reason to believe that the easy choice is actually the wrong one.
First of all, there's the hypocrisy issue. Did you watch the 2008 Beijing Games? Well, then you haven't got much reason to sit out the Sochi games. After all, in 2008, China's Freedom House score, the gold standard for human rights data, was a six out of seven (higher numbers are worse) on civil liberties. Russia's 2014 score for civil liberties? A whopping five—which is not good, but is better than China's at the time of their games. (The Polity IV data set also classifies Russian as slightly less autocratic than China). And that's just to compare these games with a recent benchmark. How about the 1980 Summer Olympics held in the USSR, which the United States and 65 other countries actually boycotted for real? Or the 1936 Olympics? You know, the ones held by the Nazis? The point is simply this: The Olympics have a long history of being held in countries with terrible political situations—many of which were much worse than the current situation in Russia.
Moreover, there's the efficacy of a boycott. What are we talking about exactly here? That you won't tune your television to NBC. Great. That'll maybe send a message to 30 Rock. Maybe. But do you really think it will register at the Kremlin? Even the 1980 boycott, which was much bigger, didn't exactly lead to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
So if you are going to sit out these Olympics, don't do it because you're concerned about human rights in Russia. Do it for the right reasons: Opening Ceremonies are long, boring, and about as deep as the It's A Small World Ride at Disneyland. The Olympics themselves are just a wussy Victorian misunderstanding of what was actually a pretty awesome sex, drugs, and rock and roll party in ancient Greece. And for god's sake, enough with all the figure skating already. If there's not an objective measurement of success—fastest, longest, most touchdowns—it's not a sport.
So. Now that one blog post has solved that controversy, who's ready to talk about Woody Allen?