Trending Debate: should Britain boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics?

By Chris Shorts

The 2014 Winter Olympics are due to open in Sochi, Russia on February 7th. It will be the 22nd Winter Olympic Games since the sporting event started in 1924, yet it will be the first in which the sport is overshadowed by something much more sinister.

In June of 2013, Russia enacted a law that bans the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors, essentially making it illegal to provide information about homosexual relationships, or about LGBT rights. Since the introduction of this law, there has been a reported rise in homophobic violence, particularly from right-wing activist groups.

In the past year, many have urged those in power in Britain to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics, but the response has been disappointing.

Lord Sebastian Coe, who acted as the chairman of London’s Olympic bid, has spoken repeatedly of his belief that a boycott would proveuntitled useless.

“I don’t think [boycotts] achieve what they set out to do,” Coe said. “They only damage one group of people, and that is the athletes. It is an issue that needs to be addressed, but not an issue that is one of a boycott.”

The assertion that the boycott would only damage the athletes is short-sighted.   The Olympics is a prestigious sporting event, and in attending without protest, Britain lends Russia a sense of credibility, which most certainly negatively impacts those in the LGBT community in Russia hoping to attain equal rights.

Historically, intolerance or prejudice in states participating in the Olympics has been dealt with firmly by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and with the full support of Great Britain. South Africa was banned by the IOC from entering the 1964 Olympics, a ban which lasted until 1992, due to their refusal to condemn apartheid. More recently, in the 2012 London Olympics, Saudi Arabia included female athletes in their delegation for the first time ever due to pressure placed on them by the international community.

If action has been taken in these cases of discrimination, it seems to be obvious that action should also be taken in Sochi.

Replying to Stephen Fry on Twitter, who wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister in August of 2013 asking him to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics, David Cameron said “I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

This is an important time for Britain’s own LGBT community, with equal marriage legislation being passed in England and Wales, and the same being expected shortly in Scotland following a final vote on the 4th February.

However, the protection and recognition of the LGBT community is not something that can or should be limited to those within LBGT-supporters-take-to-the-streets-to-protests-against-the-Sochi-Olympicsour own country. Britain’s refusal to take action against discrimination on this level is hypocritical, and would set back much of the progress we have made. In taking no action, Britain and the IOC are validating the extreme prejudice in Russia. Britain must boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics because ultimately our attendance can only translate as acceptance.

By Chris Park, Features Editor

Consider the effort, ambition and determination that an athlete puts into competing at a major sporting event – the Olympics, Paralympics and Winter Olympics being the apex of the sporting calendar – then imagine being told at the last minute it was all in vain. For reasons beyond your control you can no longer take part in what you’ve spent your life preparing for: crushing your hopes and dreams and potentially ruining careers. This is the main reason why I think it would be wrong to boycott the Sochi Winter Olympics – respect for those representing team GB.

However, I do realise it comes at the cost of giving up the principals of human rights that Britain has always championed. Put simply, the homophobia in Russia is appalling. For far too long it has been unchallenged by the rest of the world leaving many liberal countries with only a facade of tolerance: it’s all well and good to support equality at home, but ignoring international discrimination without any strong condemnation is hypocritical. Putin’s anti-gay and lesbian rhetoric is ludicrous. His anti-gay legislation has seen countless members of the Russian LGBT population physically and psychologically bullied with crimes ignored by the authorities.

With this in mind, I still believe that boycotting the Sochi Winter Olympics would be the wrong course of action. I think that David Cameron is right to say that the best way to stand up to the crimes in Russia is to participate as opposed to sitting out. Mainly because, unfortunately, boycotting the games would have little effect other than being a moral protest. A protest of real consequence would only work if a number of liberal democracies signed up; and even then, would Russia listen or even care?

As well as having little effect, a boycott would be politically damaging and I think this is Cameron’s main concern. Relations with Russia are frosty at the best of times, but to snub such a massive event could potentially look like a petty retort to the disagreements the countries have had over the years. Furthermore, it could escalate (as I’m sure the press would acknowledge) and resurrect the battle of liberalism against communism – it sounds a bit extreme, but the media wouldn’t hesitate to dramatise the issue.Russia-has-decided-to-set-up-a-special-zone-for-protest-rallies-at-the-Sochi-Winter-Olympics

The issues in Russia can only be solved by the international community pulling together to chastise the country for its human rights abuses. The Winter Olympics itself is a sporting event and therefore should not be compromised for competitors and fans solely because of the faults of the host country; politics and sports are never a winning combination and should be left to their own devices. The protest should have been against Russia hosting the event in the first place; but now, the situation is unchangeable.   Political diplomacy and pressure during and after the games would be more effect than not showing at all – which would almost be like giving in. Let Britain turn up and show them how we do.}