Controversy is nothing new for the Olympics. Barely an edition of the international sports event goes by without some scandal. Some are relatively minor — the Ryan Lochte grills situation in Beijing comes to mind. Some, like the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich games, are major world events in their own right.
The XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, haven't even started — the opening ceremonies take place Friday, February 7 — but they have been the subject of heated debate for months. While there are various political and economic concerns with the games, the largest flashpoint has related to Russia's recent adoption of strict anti-gay "propaganda" laws that violate the human rights of the country's LGBT citizens in the name of upholding "traditional values." Broadly, the laws criminalize the promotion of homosexuality to Russian youth. Right now you could be arrested and jailed in Russia if you publicly display gay-pride paraphernalia, or assure a minor that a gay relationship is as normal as a heterosexual relationship.
The Russian government remains unmoved by international backlash to these laws. While the International Olympic Committee has made assurances that gay athletes and visitors will be fine, as recently as January Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that gays and their allies can "feel calm and at ease" in Russia so long as they "leave kids alone." That is not terribly convincing.
The common response has been to boycott. Initially the idea was to pressure the IOC to move the games to another venue, which was never going to happen for logistical reasons. Then protestors encouraged the outraged to contact the various corporate sponsors of the games (and there are many, including Coca-Cola and McDonald's) and threaten to boycott their products. And many are choosing to protest Russia's politics by pledging not to watch the games altogether.
I think that is precisely the wrong move. First, your not watching the Sochi Olympics does not hurt Russia in the slightest. It hurts NBC, the American broadcaster for the games. It hurts the sponsors, who some argue are partially culpable by not withdrawing their support of the games. And it potentially hurts the IOC. But Putin and the officials in Russia do not care if you tune in to watch ice skating on your flatscreen. That does not send any kind of political message.
You want to send a message? Bear witness. Watch these games, watch how Russia reacts to the protests (and there WILL be protests — that is inevitable), and comment about it. Be vocal. Take to social media, write petitions, write opinion pieces. You cannot solve bad behavior by ignoring it. Silence is less effective than the deafening roar of protest. Do you think the members of Pussy Riot would have ever been released had the world not been watching?
The Sochi games offer an opportunity for the world to turn its eye on a government doing some deeply disturbing things. Let's use this chance to inform people about what's going on in Russia, why it's going on — and more important — why it is so wrong-minded and damaging to society.
I will be riveted to my TV from the opening ceremonies this Friday until the games end on February 23. Part of that is my bizarre affection for the Olympics, despite not giving a whit about organized sports writ large. Part of it is the legitimate thrill of seeing athletes at the peak of the human condition showcasing what they can do. And part of that will be hoping that somehow, this whole saga works out in the best possible way, with Russian officials realizing how backwards these insane "propaganda" laws are. That may require an entirely different "miracle on ice" than we saw opposite Russia at the 1980 games right here in New York State.
Mary Anna Towler's Urban Journal returns next week.