Today, Friday 7th February 2014, saw the opening ceremony officially kick off the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, but as you will no doubt be aware the games have already been shrouded in much controversy and unrest, both at home in Russia and throughout the rest of the world.
LGBT people in Russia face not only discrimination, ridicule and near persecution from their fellow countrymen, but also increasing oppression and state-sponsored homophobia from the very government and authorities that should be in place to protect their rights and lives. Despite twenty years having passed since the decriminalisation of same-sex sexual activity, and fifteen having passed since homosexuality was declassified as a mental illness, there are currently no laws in place to protect lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Last year the Russian government came under heavy criticism from all around the world for passing a law that bans the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to under-18s, making it illegal to distribute material on LGBT rights and also to suggest that same-sex relationships are equal to heteronormative relationships.
In the last year gay rights and human rights activists have stepped up the pressure on Russia with regards to the winter games, and many athletes have emphasised Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter which states that “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” Major Western leaders such as Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and French President François Hollande will not be in attendance, but whether their reasoning is political or humanitarian still remains to be seen. Celebrities such as Lady Gaga, Madonna and Stephen Fry have also joined the boycott.
But what about the athletes that have worked so hard, some all of their lives, to get to this point in their careers? According to CNN, New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup could well be the only openly gay athlete at this year’s games, but he is determined to compete for his country as part of his athletic career and to stand up for who he is and what he is proud of. The arguments in support of the boycott are completely justified and admirable, and I, as a queer woman, an amateur skater and an ice hockey fan, have felt torn when it comes to my own position on these particular games. My initial instinct was naturally to join the boycott, but I felt an immediate and overwhelming sadness that I wouldn’t get to see Matthew Parr throw some shapes on his blades or watch our GB boys smash a puck around the ice. Of course we should stand up for the stolen rights of our Russian brother and sisters, but we should do that in other ways because boycotting the Olympics won’t make a blind bit of difference to their situation. The 2014 Winter Olympic Games have helped to bring gay rights in Russia to the forefront of our media, minds and debates and boycotting them would end the focus. We need to support our hard-working and talented sportsmen and women. Gay, bi and trans athletes and spectators should still attend because staying away from the games is exactly what Putin wants you to do, and to boycott them is to play right into his hands. We should go, watch, and support and be proud of who we are and what we represent, and what we represent is love and equality. We need to stand up in the face of adversity and discrimination and prove that prejudice and oppression, no matter if we are gay, straight or otherwise, will not hold us back or prevent us from fulfilling our dreams.