I want to talk about Sochi. Before I can, I need to establish some things so we all know what I’m really talking about.
Scapegoats are a powerful political tool, and a favourite tool of extremists. If you want to make people act against their own interests, you present them with a bogeyman and you tell them that every awful thing you’re doing is to protect them from a common enemy.
These days, immigrants are maybe the most popular bogeyman. Muslims are a good one. Welfare recipients. Black people. Brown people. Travellers.
And let’s not forget the Jews. A perennial favourite. Jews make a great scapegoat. They have rituals that make them different. They have meetings that make them suspect. For much of history they were foreign everywhere because they had no homeland. And they’re few enough in number that you can make the caricature more familiar than the reality. That is a gift, if you’re a despot looking to put fear in the hearts of your people.
Jews were the scapegoat of choice for centuries. They were massacred in Catholic Europe during the First Crusade; expelled from England under Edward I; forced to convert by the Spanish Inquisition; slaughtered by Ukrainian Cossacks in the 17th century; and villified by France during the supposed Belle Epoque.
Adolf Hitler was no doubt sincere in his beliefs when he wrote in 1919 that the Jewish people were a “racial tuberculosis of the nations”. But he didn’t need to believe it; he needed the German people to believe it. Antisemitism was a cornerstone of Nazi ideology, and a central part of the platform that brought Hitler to power.
Once in power, Hitler launched a boycott of Jewish businesses. Then he removed them from all public sector positions. Then he stripped them of their political rights, their citizenship, their rights to integrate, to assemble, to organize, to hold property or own businesses. He made them carry papers that identified them as Jews. Then he rounded them up into camps. Then he killed them.
Around six million Jews died in the Holocaust. It started with a campaign to create a national scapegoat.
If we make the conservative assumption that 4% of the Russian population is LGBT, there are six million LGBT people in Russia today.
But Russia is not exterminating LGBT people, nor putting them in camps, nor making them carry papers. It hasn’t limited their right to hold property or own businesses, or revoked their citizenship.
All Russia has done is introduce laws that allow it to detain and fine individuals, fine organizations, and deport foreigners, who attempt to present homosexuality as normal or acceptable; and introduce laws that prevent foreign gay couples and people in LGBT-friendly countries from adopting Russian children (to protect these children from pedophiles, according to Putin); and introduce more general laws regarding decency, protests, and public congregation.
Meanwhile, one Russian lawmaker is currently re-drafting a bill to remove children from LGBT households. Meanwhile, violent crimes against LGBT people in Russia are on the rise. Meanwhile, half of all Russians believe gay people should be cured, and one in twenty believes they should be killed. Meanwhile, the head of Russia’s state-run media says that the hearts of gay people should be burned after they die because they are unfit for organ donation. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin says that Russia must cleanse itself of gay people in order to protect the birth rate.
The world showed up to play games in Vladimir Putin’s personal playground these past two weeks, at the Black Sea resort that’s said to be a favourite of the president. The world helped Russia put on a show - and gave its endorsement to a regime that wants to present gay people as a national scapegoat.
I don’t know if Putin is sincere in his views on homosexuality, but he has chosen his scapegoat carefully. He believes he can make his people terrified of gays - propagandists, child-molesters, threats to Russia’s future, agents of corrupting Western non-traditional values - without earning the ire of the rest of the world. Putin knows he can’t target Jews, because the West would no longer stand for it with the memory of the Holocaust so fresh in our national memories, but he believes the rest of the world doesn’t really care about LGBT people. He thinks he’s safe. He thinks he can get away with using this scapegoat to control the nation.
And he tested the waters, and he found out he was right.
Russia is not the first despotic nation with a horrifying human rights record to host the games, but even China pretended to clean up its act before the Beijing games in 2008. Putin ratcheted up his anti-gay legislation months ahead of Sochi, giving the world plenty of time to respond. It was a brazen act of brinksmanship.
And how did the world respond?
Oh, OK. See you in February!
We should have done more. We should have done something. But calls for a boycott were met with meek deference and convenient claims that showing up was the best thing we could do.
The sentiment expressed by sports fans was that it wouldn’t make any statement for them to make a sacrifice - it would just hurt the athletes who had to stay home. We could make a bigger statement, we were told, by going ahead and doing exactly what we were always going to do. That would send a clear message.
How would it send a message? Well, surely someone would protest? Surely someone would make that sacrifice? Remember Jesse Owens, and how his victories in the 1936 games in Berlin stood in defiance of Hitler’s Aryan propaganda? Someone would be the Jesse Owens of Sochi.
So let’s not make a personal sacrifice we can be sure of. Let’s punt on the ambiguous possibility of someone else making a sacrifice tomorrow. And then we can say how proud we are while they’re dragged off to prison.
Gay groups opposed a boycott based on assurances that this was their moment to attain visibility. ”I know for a fact that there are athletes currently competing who will not let these games come and go without making a statement,” wrote a representative of one pro-gay sports organization. Another wrote, “Maybe some of the individuals who go will feel compelled to take a stand.”
That same spokesman said that a boycott would politicize sport and limit its real effectiveness to change the world. He asked, “What will [Russian extremists] say when (not if, when) a gay athlete wins a gold medal in their country?”
And what did the Russian extremists say?
It turns out that a black man standing on a podium makes a visible statement about race that an LGBT person standing on a podium does not make about gender or sexuality. Who could have anticipated such a distinction? And so a gay athlete would have to do more than win gold to make a statement; they would have to break the law.
A gay athlete did win gold at Sochi. Dutch speed skater Ireen Wüst won two gold medals and three silver. She was the most decorated athlete at the games. And what did Wüst say about being gay and a gold medal winner?
"I want to talk about ice skating. You are not asking [fellow speed skater] Sven Kramer about how his relationship is going. So why would you ask me? If I would’ve had a relationship with a guy, you wouldn’t have asked me either."
Wüst later met Vladimir Putin. “I got a cuddle from him,” she told reporters.
The only other gay athlete to win a medal was Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, who took home a silver. Iraschko-Stolz’s comment on the treatment of gay people in Russia was this;
"Naturally you have to look at it from a different point of view and always be critical, but especially in my situation, I don’t want to talk too much about it."
In my situation, I don’t want to talk too much about it.
Wüst and Iraschko-Stolz were two of seven athletes, all women, who were openly LGBT competitors at the games. That’s seven out of 2,500. Less than 0.3%.
One suspects there were other LGBT athletes at Sochi - but who can blame them for not coming out, and who can blame Wüst and Iraschko-Stolz for not wanting to paint targets on their backs? The organization that they represent, which claims to stand for “the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles”, sent them to compete in a country where they could be fined and thrown in prison for acknowledging their sexuality, apparently without even considering if this might be intrinsically antithetical to their supposed values.
I don’t know how the games intend to achieve their stated mission of building a peaceful and better world through sport if making any kind of statement and taking any kind of a stand for equality is considered too political. How can an organization have values and yet eschew politics? The two go hand in hand. All such organizations should surely either embrace politics or abandon the pretence of values?
A boycott should have been on the table. I don’t think it was ever likely to happen, but pro-sports bodies tripped over themselves to rule out the idea as quickly as possible. They did not offer a strong negotiating position. Their opening gambit was to say, “But of course, whatever we do, whatever we decide, the athletes must go to Sochi and compete”.
At which point, what else can you say? The event comes first, not the athletes being sent there, cut adrift from all moral authority; and not the millions of LGBT people in Russia who fear for their lives and their freedom.
Even if a boycott was never likely, it should have been in the conversation. It was cowardice to dismiss the idea out of hand and say, “But what about Jesse Owens? We might have our own Jesse Owens”. It was a shameful capitulation to Putin to say let’s defer any sacrifice that we might feel - oh no, no sport on TV! - in favour of a more profound sacrifice that someone else might make.
And Vladimir Putin calculated that we’d capitulate. And we proved him right. All the while looking over our shoulders and asking, “Is that person our Jesse Owens? Is that person going to make a stand so I don’t have to?”
There was no Jesse Owens at Sochi, because to be Jesse Owens at Sochi would mean breaking the law, and the athletes knew that no-one - not the organizers, not the pro-gay sports organizations, not the media, not the governments of the world - really had their back.
If they’d had their back, they would have dared consider a boycott.
You might say, of course, that a boycott would have achieved nothing. The games would have gone ahead and Russia would have won more medals. They won the most medals anyway - the most total and the most gold - but they would have won more. And anyway, a boycott would not have single-handedly affected regime change in Russia overnight, and evidently anything less than that is not worth the effort.
But a boycott is not about overnight transformation. It’s about leverage. A boycott would have sent a message to the world. It would have told gay athletes that we stand by them. It would have told gay Russians that we stand by them. It would have told Vladimir Putin that we will not sit idly by and let him scapegoat a community and build another holocaust.
Is that nothing? Is that all worth less than two weeks of television and a chance to wave a flag?
We will have other opportunities to ask these questions. The Formula One World Championship moves to Russia this year with a race in Sochi in October. The World Cup moves to Russa in four years’ time.
And what are we going to say to Vladimir Putin then?
- Andrew Wheeler, 23rd February 2014.