Olympic Boycott – far too inconsistent

Luke Ilott 7 February 2014

The usual argument rolled out against a boycott of the Winter Olympics next week is that sport is sport and politics is politics, however important the latter’s ethical message might be. I’m not so sure. When sport is organized on nationalistic lines, with fans giving unthinking support to whoever happens to be wearing their colours, any competition becomes political. Whether they like it or not, Russian organisers represent their country and its laws, and visiting athletes will be giving those laws tacit legitimacy.

The issue is not the tainting of sport with politics, but the tainting of moral politics with Olympic sport. The Olympics are political. But their politics are as authoritarian and backward as Putin’s Russia. A quick name-check of recent and upcoming host countries should be enough to dispel any illusions that the Olympics still stands for the ‘universal, fundamental and ethical principles’ which pepper its charter. China is home to forced abortions, religious persecution and political repression, not to mention almost identical LGBT rights to those in Russia. In Brazil, two expensive and unnecessary sporting extravaganzas are being forced upon an impoverished people with the help of tear gas and armoured vehicles. In 2010, Singapore, where homosexuality is outright illegal and freedom of assembly is a pipedream, hosted the Youth Olympics.

Like FIFA, the IOC is increasingly dependent upon authoritarianism to force its hugely expensive events on unwilling peoples. Even in London, freedom of assembly was curtailed by the Olympic Games Act 2006, with anti-air missiles on people’s roofs and 40,000 operatives on the ground. Meanwhile, the Olympic park was declared a temporary tax haven for the eleven Olympic Partner sponsors, including McDonalds and Coca-Cola.

Quite simply, a boycott of Sochi 2014 would be remarkably inconsistent. Not only would it single out our traditional Cold War enemy for criticism while sweeping the abuses of other host nations under the carpet., but it would also fundamentally misunderstand the ‘Olympic spirit’, seeking to keep pure something which is already fundamentally tainted.

The Games are not about celebrating human diversity and upholding rights around the world. They are about medals and national dress, sponsors raking in huge profits and dissent shut down by riot police and repressive legislation. Putin’s homophobic laws are an abhorrent example of oppression in the 21st Century. But we mustn’t cheapen our outrage at Russia’s state sanctioned bigotry by clambering onto the moral high ground of an Olympic boycott, only to realise that we’re still knee-deep in mud. It is our protest, not the Games, that must be kept pure.

For an alternative view see 'A Sochi boycott is the only option'.