We are frequently told that sport and politics do not mix. Sometimes, however, it seems impossible to separate the two. In recent weeks, debate over Russia’s human rights record has imbued the build-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics with a new dimension, raising the question of whether a nation’s internal politics affect its suitability to host major sporting events.
Vladimir Putin’s assault on freedom of expression has intensified this year. In June, legislation outlawed the “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, while the arrest and imprisonment of the punk band Pussy Riot has made global headlines. Meanwhile, the racist abuse directed at Yaya Toure in a Champions League game against CSKA Moscow led the Man City midfielder to suggest that African players might boycott the 2018 World Cup in Russia if the situation does not improve.
Toure is not the only one to believe a boycott may be the solution. Steven Fry is one of a number of high profile figures to get behind a campaign for the boycott of the Winter Olympics. Indeed, Russia’s human rights abuses appear to violate the Olympic Charter, which states that "Any form of discrimination on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement." Freedom is central to our enjoyment of sports, but in Putin's Russia, speaking your mind or being open about your sexuality can land you in jail.
Nevertheless, as desirable and idealistic a goal as it may seem, a boycott remains essentially unrealistic and unfair on athletes. It would perhaps be better to see the descent of two of the biggest sporting events in the world on Russia as an opportunity to promote change. In 1936, Jesse Owen demonstrated that the Olympics are as good a platform as any to draw attention to injustice. During Sochi 2014, the world’s eyes will be on Russia. It is hard to think of a better stage for protests to put pressure on Russian authorities.