Russia will have the world’s attention in February and March, and, like any Olympic host, their domestic politics are the subject of international discussion.
Last year the Russian government passed a law prohibiting gay “propaganda,” or the promotion of homosexuality to minors. The law bans pride events and public affirmations of homosexuality and could be interpreted as a ban on being openly gay, depending on how it’s enforced.
While the Russian government can’t be commended for trying to silence LGBT people, the policy does reflect the majority opinion in the country. A Pew Research survey found that in 2013, only 16 percent of Russians approved of homosexuality.
The Russian government may be trying to imagine that LGBT people don’t exist, but they do! And an international competition event such as the Olympics is a time for values to compete as well.
The Olympics are ostensibly non-political, but that’s more of a myth than a reality. There are few greater opportunities to send a message, good or evil, on a world stage.
The United States and the Soviet Union traded snubs in the 1980s by boycotting each other’s Games for Cold War reasons.
Terrorists killed 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Games in Munich, Germany. Human rights advocates used the 2008 Games to highlight the Chinese government’s oppressive policies.
The athletes themselves, however, have made the most notable statements, both implicit and explicit.
American sprinter and long jumper Jesse Owens undermined claims of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Games in Berlin by earning four gold medals, spoiling a showcase of Nazi ideology.
The raised fists of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City are an iconic image, even more so because the gesture was well outside the usual podium etiquette — the two were expelled from the Games immediately after.
The move is associated with the Black Power movement, but Smith has explained that the sentiment was more general. (Incidentally, Smith is not affirming of homosexuality and doesn’t consider LGBT rights a human rights issue.)
A gay athlete on the podium, or a straight athlete making a gesture of solidarity, could be a powerful mix of those two — a really cool moment for a movement that is mostly gaining momentum worldwide.
It would still be against the rules, and would be seen as disrespectful to the host. But the world owes a lot to misbehaving people, and blindly following the law isn’t part of anyone’s ethical values.
And an American athlete wouldn’t be alone, or without the implicit approval of his or her own government.
Included in the American delegations chosen by the Obama administration for the opening and closing ceremonies are two openly gay athletes — deliberate, for sure.
Of course, the pedestal that America would be standing on by criticizing Russia’s LGBT policies isn’t very high. Marriage equality doesn’t exist in most of this country, and laws criminalizing sodomy (and thus homosexuality) weren’t stricken from the books until 2003, barely a decade ago. Advocacy for LGBT people would be warranted even if the Games were held in the United States.
It should also be mentioned that Owens, mentioned earlier, felt that his own president, Franklin Roosevelt, snubbed him worse than Hitler did. But at least our country is moving in the right direction when it comes to LGBT rights, and not regressing as Russia is.
Equal treatment for LGBT people in Russia will be a gradual process, one that’s going on at various stages all around the world. But a strong showing for equality at the Olympics could be a pivotal and exciting development.
Editor-in-chief Jack Clinch is a senior political science major.