August 12, 2013 Leave a comment
By Alex Bryan
Stephen Fry’s heartfelt and powerful open letter to David Cameron arguing that Britain should boycott the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics in light of Russia’s restrictive and prejudiced new anti-LGBT laws has provoked a debate about the relative merits of a boycott. David Cameron and Sebastian Coe were unequivocal in their response; both stated that they did not support boycotts, and that dialogue rather than isolation was the road to social change. Supporters of Fry point to increased violence against gay people in Russia, and argue that to participate is essential to collaborate with Putin’s government.
Though the suggestion to boycott Sochi is relatively new, sporting boycotts themselves are not, and the merits of boycotts as a method of achieving anything are at the heart of this debate. Coe claimed that he is ‘against boycotts’ as they do not ‘achieve what they set out to do’. This seems quite an extreme position; surely the success of a boycott in some way depends on the numerous variables at hand, such as the aim of the boycott, how extensive it is, how it is implemented etc. Some boycotts do seem to work, such as the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa, so to take an absolute anti-boycott position seems extreme.
Regardless of whether it would be successful, given the position of Coe and Cameron and the necessity of mollifying the strategically important and volatile Russia, a boycott seems highly unlikely. In any case, a boycott of Russia would expose activists to accusations of hypocrisy; why boycott Olympics in Russia but attend in China? However, that does not mean we should ignore the suggestion, as the statements made by those opposing a boycott betray an underlying falsehood which is important to refute; that sport and politics should not mix. This supposed divorce between the two is fallacious, doing nothing to protect sport and everything to protect the oppressive regimes and the international sporting authorities who aid them from proper scrutiny.
A preliminary point to make, regardless of what one thinks of the suggestion of a boycott, is that governing sporting bodies, such as the IOC and FIFA, are responsible for choosing where their events are to take place. It is clear, from the IOC’s decision to stage the Olympics in China and Russia in two of the last three events, and FIFA’s decision to host in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022 that oppressive laws are of little concern to these organisations, with potential economic rewards taking precedence. This is both sad and necessary; international sport cannot be a contest between liberal western democracies. The major emerging global powers (India, China, Nigeria and Brazil) all have sketchy human rights records, but will no doubt host global sporting events in the coming decades.
But maintaining the global nature of sporting events and incorporating countries with disgraceful human rights records is a different thing to separating sport from politics. The ancient Greeks realised this; the Olympic Truce may have suspended wars for the duration of the Games, but it was acknowledge that politics cannot be suspended, and the Games were often used for political purposes. By acknowledging that sport is not immune from political influence, that it is political, we take nothing away from the sporting event. Instead, we accept that it is a part of, rather than an exception to, regular human activity.
Rather than focussing our efforts on boycotting Sochi then, we should adopt a tactic which would be both more realistic and have more of a long-term effect, and focus on ensuring that politics and sport are no longer seen as distinct arenas. Politics is a part of sport; attempts to deny this are usually insidious, driven either by naked economic greed or ideological zeal. By ensuring the two are seen as united, or at least linked, we would in the process be ensuring that the rights of oppressed groups around the world are not ignored when commissioning events such as the Olympics. We would also be doing a service to the thousands of athletes who compete in countries where they would usually be given no chance for success on the basis of their gender, race or sexuality.