Use Sochi to support human rights

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It should be clear by now that the Olympic Games is about as useful for promoting the vaunted notion of justice through sport as a hammer is for spreading paint on a wall. That, of course, doesn’t prevent millions of viewers from gluing themselves to their TV sets every four years to glimpse fleeting instances of true athletic grace.

It is, in fact, the rarity of such demonstrations of simple, unalloyed prowess, amid the cloying displays of national pride and corporate flackery, that keep us parked in our seats hoping for the best in human nature, though expecting the worst.

Six months out from Sochi, the underbelly of this quadrennial extravaganza is already showing itself. The host country, Russia, dislikes gay people so much that it has passed laws banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”. That means, if you are an athlete who is out of the closet, you’d be advised to go back in and shut the door lest you find yourself fined, in jail, or both.

Aggravating this insult were comments last week that suggested that at least one member of the International Olympic Committee remains sanguine about Russia’s hard line on homosexuality.

According to a CNN report, “Lamine Diack, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, has called for Russian law to be respected ahead of his sport’s world championships, which begin in Moscow on Saturday. ‘I don’t feel there is a problem whatsoever,’ Diack, a member of the International Olympic Committee, told reporters. ‘Russia has their laws. Each athlete can have their own private life, so we won’t call upon people about this and that. . .We are here for the World Championships and have no problem whatsoever and I’m not worried at all.’”

Roughly 300,000 other individuals, who have signed a petition calling for Russia to repeal the legislation, are far less cheerful, given that the “the goal of Olympism”, according to the IOC’s charter, “is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

All of which has raised the unavoidable specter of a boycott. The well-known British actor, comedian and activist Stephen Fry has gone as far as to demand that the Games be relocated. In an open letter to his Prime Minister David Cameron and the IOC, he wrote on his website, “An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillyhammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world. . .He is making scapegoats of gay people, just as Hitler did Jews. He cannot be allowed to get away with it.”

He later changed his mind, and for good reason. Practically and politically, such a move would be impossible. But, in fact, any form of boycott would be both unfair to the athletes and counterproductive to the cause of human rights. Snubbing the Games tacitly acknowledges the legitimacy of the legislation. It says: the law may be vile, but it is still the law. Russia has thrown down the gantlet; the world must now pick it up.

I am inclined to agree with those, including Canada’s Foreign Minister John Baird, who have remarked that Sochi presents an important opportunity for the athletic communities of all nations to forge a united front of principled protest against Russia’s backward social policies. Specifically, the opportunity to flout the law and send a message that acceptance, not discrimination, animates an increasingly enlightened world is too good to pass up.

At the very least, it would go some distance towards restoring a modicum of respectability to the apparatus of the Games, itself, the reports of whose ambivalence, corruption and scandals over the years could paper the walls of several Olympic-sized swimming pools.

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