Monday, February 17, 2014

The Sochi Olympics: From Boycotts to Protest

For a brief moment, during his farcical interview with the BBC, you could read Anatoly Pakhomov’s thought processes in his otherwise stony expression. Having denied that any gay people lived in the city, the mayor of Sochi was confronted with an incredulous interviewer who retorted that he had visited a gay club the previous night. For a fleeting second Pakhomov’s eyes glazed over. “Can I deny this?” he seemed to ask himself. “Is he bluffing? Can I call this journalist a liar? What happens if I say the wrong thing now? Why was he at a gay club? Is he gay?!” And just for a second a part of me hoped he was also thinking, "Did he see me there?!"

That gay people should have become invisible to the likes of Pakhomov is hardly surprising. It is the intended consequence of draconian legislation that seeks to push the LGBTQ community to the margins of Russian society. In June 2013 a nationwide law was passed by the Russian Duma banning the distribution of "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors. It’s difficult to know what part of this is most disgusting: the conflation of homosexuality and paedophilia, the oblique phraseology designed to cloak bigotry in plausible deniability, or the fact that the legislation’s remit is so vague as to outlaw anything from a newspaper article making passing reference to homosexuality to a Gay Pride march.

Understandably the Russian LGBTQ community is outraged at being criminalised in such a way. In defiance of the laws and in the face of state repression and often horrific brutality, supporters of gay rights have continued to march and rally across the country. On those occasions when they have not been subject to mass arrests they have been viciously attacked by Christian zealots or members of Russia’s growing neo-Nazi movement, emboldened by each new governments pronouncement, as a complicit police force stand idly by in the background. Along with the formation of militant anti-gay groups such as Parents of Russia and Occupy Paedophilia, these are extreme manifestations of a tide of homophobic feeling running through the country. The Moscow Times has reported that:
“Eighty-five percent of respondents surveyed by the Levada Center said they opposed same-sex marriages in Russia and 87 percent said they did not want gay parades to take place in Russian cities, Interfax reported. The survey showed that 23 percent of respondents felt that gay people should be left alone, while 27 percent said they needed psychological help. Another 16 percent suggested that gays be isolated from society, 22 percent insisted on compulsory treatment, and 5 percent said homosexuals should be ‘liquidated’."
It would be a grave mistake, however, to reason that Putin and his government are passively reflecting public opinion. Despite his straw-grasping claim to be on “friendly terms” with some gay people, Putin has talked of the need for Russia to “cleanse” itself of homosexuals and he has been central to the deliberate demonization of an entire section of Russian society. Some commentators have characterised this attack as a classic example of the scapegoating of a minority group. However this would require the Russian LGBTQ community to be the scapegoat for something, such as the way in which Cameron, Clegg and Osborne attempt to lay the blame for the economic crisis on immigrants/'scroungers'/public sector workers. Yet Russia’s economy has grown tenfold since Putin first came to power, it emerged relatively unscathed from the financial crash and the World Bank considers that the likelihood for economic growth in 2014 “remains moderately positive”. Unemployment in Russia, despite some fluctuations, is lower than it was two years ago and while Putin’s 61% approval rating is the lowest it has been since 2000 it is still a figure most world leaders can only dream of reaching. It is certainly true that the inequality of Russian society continues to grow apace – the number of billionaires in the country gone from zero at the turn of the century to more than a hundred today – yet homosexuals are more a distraction from, rather than a scapegoat for, the disparity between rich and poor.

What we’re witnessing therefore is not so much scapegoating as outright persecution; a process driven (I would tentatively suggest) by two political imperatives. Firstly, Putin “is trying to build a strong national identity based around ‘traditional values’” to secure the continuation of his premiership. Secondly, he has identified the public demonstrations of gay pride as a residual element of the pro-democracy protest movement that exploded three years ago. Michael Idov has written:
“The war on gay people is one part of a broader crackdown on civil rights that got out of control. Ever since a wave of mass protests in December 2011 shook the Kremlin, the Russian Duma has passed a staggering number of restrictive laws: new regulations that make it harder for people to congregate freely; a rule that requires all NGOs that receive funding from abroad to label themselves as “foreign agents”; a stultifying ban on US adoptions of Russian children; and a suite of decency and anti-piracy bills that makes it easier to shutter inconvenient websites.”
None of this is to suggest that Putin doesn’t have a homophobic bone in his body. Indeed, if you can judge a man by the company he keeps then he’s banged to rights. One close ally, Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, has dubbed Putin’s lengthy stay in office a “miracle of God”. He’s also on record as saying that the idea of gay marriage is a “very dangerous sign of the Apocalypse”. A deeply reactionary, ultra-conservative Christianity has played a central role in laying the ideological foundations of the Putin years from the very start.

Although the Winter Games may not carry the same cache as their Summer counterparts, the Sochi Olympics have focussed the attention of the international community on the situation inside Russia. Much to Vladimir Putin’s chagrin, no doubt. Governments are attracted to the staging of mega-events, such as the Olympics or football World Cup, by the lure of what Robert K Barney has referred to as the ‘P’ triad: publicity, profit and pride. It is a unique chance to showcase a nation, attract corporate investment and either cement or stake a claim for a place amongst the global elite. Of the four BRIC countries, for example, only India are yet to win the right to stage a sporting mega event, seemingly content with hosting the world’s pre-eminent limited overs cricket competition and the occasional Formula 1 Grand Prix.

For Russia, the Winter Games were intended to be such a showcase. For Putin, it was to be a celebration of his leadership on the largest stage of all, a gateway to the publicity, profit and pride his ego seems to so desperately desire, and an opportunity to flex the muscles of soft power. Instead the run-up to Sochi 2014 has been dominated by talk of human rights abuses and a growing clamour for a boycott of the Winter Olympics.

To Boycott or Not To Boycott?

In August of last year Stephen Fry, in an open letter to the British government and the Olympic movement, argued that the Olympics should not be staged in Russia . In typically eloquent style, Fry drew a comparison between the plight of homosexuals in today’s Russia to the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany prior to the 1936 Olympics which were held in Berlin. The letter sparked a mini controversy, although few found fault with Fry’s tone or indeed his description of the anti-homosexual legislation as “barbaric” and “fascist”. Fry’s real crime was in tearing down the artificial wall that separates the worlds of sport and politics – a point he had the foresight to address in his letter:
“The idea that sport and politics don’t connect is worse than disingenuous, worse than stupid. It is wickedly, wilfully wrong. Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people. An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. Stage them elsewhere in Utah, Lillehammer, anywhere you like. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world.
Fry’s call for the International Olympic Committee to “take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent” was too pointed to be easily dismissed (despite the best efforts of Seb Coe who dismissed the boycott call as a “ludicrous proposition”). With the world’s media beginning to ask awkward questions International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, Jacques Rogge, asked the Russian government for “clarification” on the propaganda law. Eventually Putin felt it necessary to respond and assured the IOC that Russia would “do everything to make sure that athletes, fans and guests feel comfortable at the Olympic Games regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation".

While the IOC was being seen to tread carefully the British establishment was singing a familiar tune. David Cameron, in slightly more circumspect fashion, made it clear that there was no chance that the British team would boycott the Sochi Games. Taking to Twitter the PM told Fry: "Thank you for your note. I share your deep concern about the abuse of gay people in Russia. However, I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics."

Perhaps Cameron’s argument would carry more weight if he himself were going to be at Sochi. As it is, he, like many other heads of state, have proffered a familiar “do as I say, not as I do” style of leadership, effectively engaging in an unofficial (and therefore deniable) diplomatic boycott.  Vladimir Putin can at least count on support from one – unsurprising – quarter. FIFA president Sepp Blatter has spoken out against any potential protests. With one eye on the continued demonstrations in Brazil, who are due to host the World Cup later this year, Blatter said:
“These two events (Sochi and the World Cup in Brazil) have one thing in common: they have both been misused as a platform for political disputes. In the case of the Winter Olympics, this dispute is coming to a head with threats to boycott the Games. Such a boycott would change nothing. On the contrary, it may be interpreted as a refusal to establish a dialogue on the issue, as was the case with boycotts of the Olympic Games in Moscow in 1980 or in Los Angeles in 1984. I believe that such a major event presents a perfect opportunity to strike up conversations and cultivate contacts."
As the row rumbled on more celebrities – from Madonna to Fry’s old mucker, Hugh Lawrie – spoke out. It reached a spectacular, choreographed conclusion at the Grammys, where 33 couples, both gay and straight, tied the knot at the awards ceremony. The whole thing left me with conflicted thoughts and emotions. On the one hand, old romantic that I am, the display left me a little misty eyed. On the other I couldn’t help but feel that the whole shebang was straight out of the Cold War rhetoric playbook. Some of the media narrative was developing into a tale of binary opposites: West = good: Russia (indeed, everywhere else) = bad. Of course the idea that Cameron’s Conservatives or the US ruling class are interested in tackling homophobia is fanciful. But it left us with a tactical conundrum: How do you deal with the question of the boycott call and not make concessions to the hypocrisy of one’s own ruling class? As Kevin Ovenden explained at the time:
“The Unite Against Fascism message sent to the St. Petersburg anti-fascist demonstration explicitly locates solidarity in a common struggle across Europe. In doing what hard-pressed activists in Russia call for--solidarizing with their struggle--it cuts against both the racist right in Russia and against those who would seek to detach that from its moorings in the common capitalist crisis and place it instead in paradigm of Cold War liberalism. It seeks to respond with a concrete, common call for coordination. Not a ‘boycott’ springing from liberal imagination in the West and, whatever its intention, fusing with highly illiberal forces here, while providing a ready alibi for their equivalents to the East.”
I would argue that socialists should employ a fairly simple rule of thumb, taking our lead from the activists in Russia. In much the same way as the call for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign originated in calls made by Palestinian activists, so those of us looking to offer our solidarity internationally should look at the wishes of those on the receiving end of Putin’s policies. LGBTQ activists were not, as far as one can discern, urging their supporters in other countries to call for a boycott. In fact, some were arguing that such a strategy would be counter-productive.

However things were a little more complicated. The media in the US and UK has, overwhelmingly, focussed its attention on the situation of the LGBTQ community inside Russia at the expense of all other considerations. There were, in fact, Russian activists calling for a boycott. Circassions have objected to the Winter Games on the grounds that Sochi was the site of the genocide perpetuated by the Russian Empire in 1864. Pussy Riot, the perennial pain in Putin’s posterior, have called for a boycott in order to draw attention to the corruption and human rights violations. And NoSochi activists have been campaigning against the Olympics for a number of years – and had been in London in 2012 to lead the Counter Olympics Network demonstration on the opening Saturday of the Games. While they too have brought talked of state repression and violence, their primary focus has been on the deleterious effects of the Games themselves.

Opposing the Olympic Juggernaut

The Sochi Olympics are the most expensive in history, with costs in excess of $50 billion. How much of that cash has been used to finance the plethora of specially constructed Olympic venues is debatable. Leading Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov estimates that as much as 60% of that money has been syphoned off by corrupt politicians and their friends in big business. Alongside this ridiculous economic cost of the Games is an incalculable environmental cost. The wetlands that surround Sochi required massive development and large swathes of the Sochi National Park have been sacrificed at the alter of the sporting mega-event. Concrete now covers areas of vegetation: 225 miles of road and 22 tunnels have been drilled into the mountains. As luxury hotels spring up for wealthy visitors, residential apartment blocks have been left unfinished and local people live in constant fear that their own houses will collapse. 

Workers on Olympic construction projects have endured the most horrendous conditions. Many have not been paid after months of labour and endless guarantees that the money was on its way. Those who complained were visited by the police. Those who persisted tell stories of unsuccessful attempts to beat them into silence. No dissent can be allowed to overshadow the wonder of the Games. The Russian government, under heavy pressure and media scrutiny, have allowed an Olympic protest zone - some twelve miles outside of Sochi. Not that this has halted the inevitable crackdown on civil liberties. Already we have seen Games security, decked out in uniforms which sport the Coca-Cola logo, attack protesters along the route of the Olympic Torch and activists arrested for reading from the Olympic Charter

It is for these reasons - and more besides - that people in Russia have called for a boycott of the Olympics. But it needs to be acknowledged that these experiences are not specific to Russia. Cost over-runs have been part and parcel of the Olympic history for years. Famously Jean Drapeau, the then mayor of Montreal, said ahead of the 1976 Games staged in the city, "The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby." Montreal finally paid off their Olympic debt in 2000. The cost of the London 2012 Olympics was originally estimated at £2.5 billion yet increased more than five-fold by the time the Games were over. 

Environmental concerns dominated the run up to the previous Winter Olympics in Vancouver; workers rights became a central theme before the 2004 Games in Athens; every successive host city has been left with empty venues, enormous white elephants that testify to the spectacular waste of staging an Olympiad. Each host city has been the scene of protests that seek to draw the attention of the world's media to the fact that the Games offer little more than a five-ring circus in societies racked by inequality. In response each government has laid waste to civil liberties, be it with the murderous intent of the Mexican state in 1968 or the casual racism of the Atlanta police department who rounded up homeless people (many of whom were black) and drove them to the city limits during the 1996 Games.  

The Olympics long ago stopped being a sporting event; they are today an opportunity to exercise commercial, political and state power. Jules Boykoff has described the Games as an example of 'Celebration Capitalism' - an event which allows the ruling class to push through, unchallenged, a series of controversial measures which at any other time would be subject to the most exacting scrutiny and opposition (in a similar vein, Dave Zirin has described the Olympics as a "neo-liberal Trojan horse". Huge amounts of public money is transferred to the private sector; whole areas undergo transformation by gentrification; the poor and the inconvenient are removed in a process that can only be described as social cleansing. What we have witnessed in Russia is an extreme version of these events, but they are not reducible to the evils of the Putin government. They are the inevitable consequence of staging the Olympic Games themselves. 

The Athletes

In the end there was no need to take a decision about campaigning tactics. In reality there was never any chance of the British government, sporting administration or athlete community even considering the possibility of a boycott. The question became instead, would any athletes speak out against the situation in Russia during the Sochi Games? As the Olympics approached the chances seemed to increase as athletes found a political voice. It is important to realise that they did not do so in isolation. The popular notion is of sports men and women operating in a bubble, somehow hermetically sealed from the rest of society, When they occasionally voice an opinion it is treated as an aberration. 

The truth is that, historically, when athletes have spoken out, it has been against the backdrop of wider social movements. As large numbers of people in society begin to challenge racism or sexism so it finds an echo in the world of sport. The athletes become aware of the thousands of people out on the streets and in turn they take confidence from them. Those athletes in Sochi will be aware of the situation in Russia, they will know of the demonstrations, and they will know of the rallies outside Russian embassies in various countries around the globe. While we may not be able to talk of a mass movement, or even a movement in embryo, the protests that have taken place have caused small ripples in the sports world. And the Olympics provides athletes with the largest stage of all on which to make a political statement.

The Olympic Games have always positioned themselves as an event capable of drawing all of humanity together. So it is that Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter states: “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.” Campaigners have been quick to stress that Principle 6 also covers discrimination on the grounds of one’s sexuality and  “under pressure from Athlete Ally and All Out, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has confirmed that Principle 6 includes sexual orientation”. In the week before the opening ceremony in Sochi more than 50 Olympians past and present - including twelve people who are competing in Sochi signed a statement calling on Putin's government to re-think their anti-gay laws. It was a small but most welcome step. 

It is worth remembering that the two most famous political Olympic moments came following failed attempts to secure boycotts. In 1936 the American Athletic Union, repulsed by Nazi Germany’s treatment of its Jewish citizens, collected over half a million signatures in favour of boycotting the Berlin Games. Only reassurances from Avery Brundage, anti-Semite and future IOC president, ensured American – and thereby Jesse Owens’ – participation. The story of Owens is complex, but his achievement is commonly remembered as a demolition of Hitler’s claims to Aryan superiority.

Similarly in 1968 athletes in the United States called unsuccessfully for a boycott under the banner of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Two of the most outspoken athlete-activists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, would raise clenched-fist salutes on the medal rostrum in a powerful statement against racism and poverty. Vilified by many at the time, their dignified protest remains one of the most iconic images of the twentieth century.

With no boycott campaign materialising, Sochi offers athletes a unique opportunity to register disgust at Putin’s treatment of the LGBTQ community in Russia. Any athlete who finds the courage to do so will achieve a legacy that resonates far beyond their sporting success.