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Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows

In my new book, Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows, I examine Russia's 2013 anti-gay laws, their implications for the Sochi 2014 Olympics, and world responses to calls for a boycott.

Sexual Diversity and The Sochi 2014 Olympics

A century in the making, Russia's new laws reflect decades of sexual repression in the former Soviet Union. Since 1993, despite societal changes and the decriminalizing of homosexuality, homophobia continues to be evident, particularly within President Putin's conservative religious base.

Not surprisingly, the 2013 anti-gay laws have led to an increase in homophobic violence, and vigilante groups are even posting videos of their violent activities on right wing websites. Meanwhile, Putin assures the world that gay and lesbian athletes and spectators are safe in Russia, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announces that it is ‘satisfied' with these reassurances.

Married with children 

In its inadequate response to yet another human rights crisis in an Olympic host country - Beijing 2008 and Berlin 1936 are earlier egregious examples - the IOC is relying on the myth that sport is apolitical. In reality, as one critic pointed out, sport and politics don't just mix, they're married with children!

Ever since the first Modern Olympics of 1896, international rivalries have been played out on the field, and the politics of sex and gender have been a key component of the Olympic spectacle. A recent example was the controversy over the sexual identity of South African runner Caster Semenya, considered by sport officials and the media to be ‘not woman enough/' And now we witness the highly political issue of lesbian and gay rights in sport, with Putin's Russia and the IOC colluding in the project of enforcing lesbian and gay invisibility. 

In June 2013, when news of Russia's legislation banning ‘gay propaganda' (broadly defined) spread around the world, there was widespread outrage and calls for a Sochi boycott, which for the most part failed to attract much support. An analysis of negative responses to the boycott proposal reveals four major rationales:

1. Ineffective

There are better ways of protesting and better targets to boycott, some say, such as boycotting Olympic sponsors' products, and signing online petitions demanding that the IOC intervene.

2. Unfair 

A boycott would be unfair to the athletes (or, rather, it would be unfair to our athletes) who have made significant sacrifices in order to compete at the Olympics. World leaders, including President Obama, used this ‘unfair' argument, apparently unaware of the implicit message that elite athletes' sacrifices should dictate a country's foreign policy.  Ironically, the decision by the President not to attend, and not to send a member of his family, Vice President Biden, or any other top politician, and the inclusion of openly gay athletes in the American VIP contingent, sends an important message of support.

3. Not our responsibility 

The IOC and National Olympic Committees should take responsibility and politics should be kept out of sport, some argue. This ‘sport-as-special' argument claims that governments have no role in Olympic sport, despite huge infusions of taxpayers' money to fund facilities and training for high-performance athletes. Sport is sport, pure and simple, uncontaminated by politics, according to this argument.

4. Magical thinking 

  • Sport has the power to unite us all, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation; it breaks down barriers across nations. Magical thinking attributes a range of miracles to sport, including world peace and universal brotherhood and sisterhood.
  • Sport as lesbian/gay proving ground: lesbian and gay athletes will win medals, defy stereotypes and prove themselves to be good citizens. Sport is seen as ‘normalizing' members of sexual minorities so that the heterosexual majority will accept them. Obama and others, including gay sport leaders, have made this claim.

Once again, the 2014 Olympics demonstrate a lack of moral leadership on the part of the IOC, and illustrate the staying power of the ‘pure Olympic sport' myth. A significant challenge faces parents of any young athlete, and especially parents of a lesbian or gay athlete, if they are to encourage informed, critical thinking about the politics of Olympic sport.

Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, PhD is Professor Emerita at the University of Toronto who writes frequently on issues of sex and sport, including her latest book, Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave macmillan 2014)