We’re only a day away from the start of this year’s Winter Olympics, to be held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, but the focus so far has been less on sport and more on politics. Specifically, critics have pointed to Russia’s poor record on issues like freedom of speech and of the press, an economy controlled by oligarchs and Soviet-style authoritarian leaders, and Russia’s record on gay rights. The most recent controversy has revolved around a speech given by President Putin insisting that gay people themselves are not criminalized in Russia, but ‘homosexual propaganda’ is.
Of course, the Russian state can define anything as propaganda – written works like pamphlets and posters, yes; but also acts like holding hands in public. And we’ve seen in the attempted gay pride parades in Moscow that while gay people might not officially be criminalized, they’re certainly mistreated by the police and organized fascist groups on a regular basis. The latest statement has done nothing to end the calls from some western commentators to boycott the Sochi Olympics.
Such calls are gaining a certain amount of sympathy, and they certainly have a point – Russia’s record on gay rights, as well as human rights in general, leaves much to be desired. But I still find them a little disingenuous. We should be considering a boycott of the Olympic Games (summer and winter), but not because of any one country’s human rights record – but because the Olympics have a history of being damaging to poor and underprivileged communities, and focused almost exclusively on profit.
Look at Beijing, where entire districts of the city were demolished to make way for the Bird’s Nest stadium and the Water Cube aquatics center – as with many large infrastructure projects in China, the property of the poor and working class people who lived in these areas was considered of secondary importance next to the corporate profits that could be made from the Olympics.
But it’s not just famously authoritarian regimes like China or Russia that act in this way – supposed bastions of liberal democracy like the UK have proved to be just as bad when the International Olympics Committee comes calling. Traditional public spaces like Hackney Marshes were encroached upon by Olympic infrastructure (ironically reducing the amount of space disadvantaged communities had for playing sports), public money that could have been spend on health and education was diverted into building stadiums and the Olympic village, and the police were allowed to remove anti-corporate posters and slogans from the windows of houses near the Olympic site. For more information on the negative impacts of the Olympics on London, check out http://www.gamesmonitor.org.uk/.
So certainly, let’s boycott the Olympics. But not just because of Putin’s dislike of gay people. Let’s do it because everywhere the Olympic Games go, they leave a trail of destruction in their wake which is primarily pushed onto the poorest in society – infrastructure and changes to the housing market that push poor people out of city centres and into urban peripheries, debt that takes decades to pay off (Montreal’s Olympics took 40 years to pay off) and which leads to cuts in services in the meantime, and the diversion of money from health, education, and grassroots sport and into exclusive stadiums, accommodation, and security for Olympic officials and other ‘very important persons’. If a boycott of the Russian games encourages us to see these darker aspects of the Olympics, I fully support it – if it ignores them and focuses only on one human rights issue, it will have little impact.
Article prepared by John Wish