The Sochi Winter Olympics are under threat of boycott. Russia’s treatment of gay people is not just historically disgraceful, but, unlike almost everywhere else in the world, getting considerably worse. A new law, passed in June, makes it illegal to speak well of homosexuality in public. Violence against homosexuals and lesbians is commonplace, and horrifying in its scale. Visitors to the Sochi Olympics have been warned that they must act in accordance with Russia’s laws, or face the consequences.
In line with these frightening developments, liberal activists here are urging action against the Sochi Winter Olympics, to take place in Russia next year. Stephen Fry, in a measured open letter to the Prime Minister, compared the position of gay people in Russia in 2013 to the position of Jews in Germany in 1936. That seems fair enough. In both cases, laws have been passed limiting their freedom, and concerted acts of violence mounted with the connivance of the state against their persons and businesses. An organised Reichskristallnacht against gay bars in Moscow hardly seems an implausible prospect. It is proposed that the Sochi Olympics be boycotted.
The sports establishment, in alliance with the political establishment, is on the whole against a boycott. It would be a terrible shame, after all, for all those boys and girls who have practised so long and so hard if they were to miss out on their chance of a bronze medal. Boycotts are not the answer, said Lord Coe, who pointed out that his attendance at the 1980 Moscow Olympics led, 10 years later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall. I think that is what is known as an example of the operation of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Nevertheless, a boycott is being urged on all and sundry, and I think we can certainly support that. The 1936 Berlin Olympics were a stain on the reputation of the movement that has lasted nearly 80 years. Everyone knew that it would not be right to engage with South African sport in the years of apartheid. Would it really be right to go to a country that, in recent years, has taken such steps to prevent any expression of the rights of its gay and lesbian citizens? Where appalling anti-gay violence is not only commonplace, but in many instances not prevented by the forces of law and order?
Pressure is being brought, in the first instance, on the BBC’s sports presenter Clare Balding, as a prominent member of the community. What is she doing there? How can she reconcile her conscience with her attendance? Would it not be very much like a Jewish commentator going to Hitler’s Olympics and praising the marvellous fit blond boys carrying flags?
One has a great deal of sympathy, however, for Ms Balding. In an ideal world, people would examine their own consciences and go, or not go, to such a place. Most gay people, and most liberal people, would examine their consciences and decide not to go. If a few went, that would reflect healthy disagreement.
But Ms Balding, really, is required by decency not to go for one simple reason. She’s almost the only one. In the world of sport, there is so little open representation of homosexuality. If the only prominent gay or lesbian person in the field insists on going, that is not the decision of a private person. It will be widely seen as a community not really caring about human rights. It is too large a burden to place on a single person, and Ms Balding’s decision whether to go or not will have too great a significance.
They’ve certainly done a good job of keeping openly gay people out – one that the most extremist Russian homophobe might envy. At the last Olympic outing, in 2012 in London, there were over 12,000 athletes. Of these, 23 were openly gay. Of these, three were men – one diver and two from dressage. Three gay men out of 12,000! That really represents a triumph of Putin-like cleansing, at a festival absurdly acclaimed at the time as a model of cultural diversity.
There are other examples of ethnic or cultural purity in sport. The first Asian to play football in the Premier League appeared as recently as 2004, since when numbers have actually fallen. With all such cases, one would like to know what the mechanism is. When are Asians first discouraged from playing football? Are gay people discouraged from the start, or are they told that they should keep very quiet about the matter? Everyone knows that there are deeply closeted presenters and sportspeople. When they appear at Sochi, or indeed on any other occasion, they will be presenting the shame-filled, Putin-approved face of acceptable homosexuality.
In any case, there seems no doubt at all that many people in sport find the whole question of gay people taking part risible at worst, or an unimportant diversion at best. Is the world of sport in the best position to mount a principled protest on these grounds? Of course not. Will the world of sport undertake such a boycott? Of course not. Its attendance at Sochi will be accompanied by talk of the Olympics “bringing people together”. Meanwhile, gay people will go on being prosecuted and violently assaulted and murdered. Going to Sochi will be a stain on the reputation of those who make a living from sport. But the stain will not be a new one.