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Sochi Olympics: Hockey Boycott? No. The Best Protest Is Attending

When one undertakes a political act such as a boycott, they do so with the intention of making a change happen. If there is no reasonable chance that the act will make the desired change happen then the act itself becomes self serving and, in the end, will do more harm than good.

I'm no expert on the Russian psyche, but I have read enough literature, history and current news to be of the firmly held belief that an act such as boycotting the Olympic games will do absolutely no good. Russia will not bow down and change itself, the Russian people will not rise up and demand the change and the world's media is already yawning, frying more potent fish.

The whole idea of a boycott is a lame horse. What is the eulogy? "There, you take all the gold medals! That'll teach you!" Frankly, I think we ought to go and whoop the pants off the buggers. Now that would teach them.

The greatest preemptive pressure that could have been brought to bear against Russia has already been brought - public opinion has been shifted, public outrage stirred and more people are aware of the problem now than were before the talk of boycotting began. In fact, a boycott, would be something of a pressure release. There are more people waiting to see "if someone will do something" like the Tommie Smith and John Carlos salute at the 1968 Olympics than there are people calling for a boycott.

Human Rights SaluteThe 1968 Olympics Black Power salute was an act of protest by the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. As they turned to face their flags and hear the American national anthem (The Star-Spangled Banner), they each raised a black-gloved fist and kept them raised until the anthem had finished. Smith, Carlos and Australian silver medalist Peter Norman all wore human rights badges on their jackets. In his autobiography, Silent Gesture, Tommie Smith stated that the gesture was not a "Black Power" salute, but a "human rights salute". The event is regarded as one of the most overtly political statements in the history of the modern Olympic Games. wikipedia
As with any major protest or disruptive political action, the potential gains must be weighed against the potential losses: will the immediate benefit, if there is one, provide enough of a step forward to compensate for any back steps it will cause.

In this case, my opinion is that no, it will not.

I read a comment on a message board yesterday to the effect that the American and Canadian hockey teams should boycott the Sochi games because, in a phrase, "that would teach them". The premise being that Russia so loves hockey that a stay-at-home-on-principal act by two of their natural rivals would really get under their skin.

Why yes, it certainly would. Would make them very cranky. All the Russian athletes and all the Russian people would be mightily upset. And still, nothing would change except that hundreds athletes who have spent their lifetimes waiting for such a moment won't get to go live it. The laws will still be what they are and Russia will move along as it always does, inexorably, to its own tune and with little regard for the pointy stick of international opinion.

Which is not to say, of course, that we should all go "well, that's that, then" and just accept whatever injustices come our way but it does mean that more useful means of bringing about change must be considered. A boycott will, frankly, probably cause a tremendous backlash of bad will back here in North America where the issue of human rights, in the context of sexuality, is still having its own growing pains.

If, for instance, Smith and Carlos had boycotted the 1968 games, we would have a footnote in history about what didn't happen, instead of a living historical reference about what did happen. A boycott is the ultimate passive-aggressive act. It's the sort of neener, neener that, in this case, takes hostages and that's a bit of a no-no, a kind of human rights violation in itself.  And probably not at all a step forward.

Let's face it: it's not like anyone living in North America has not heard of the issues of "gay rights". It's not like any of us live in a bubble - virtually every one of us, by way of our own provincial, state and federal laws and the bodies that create them, has been made aware of the issue. There will be no eureka moment in North America ... just a collective groan as the people not personally affected realize the last four years of training, waiting, anticipating and working towards something has been for naught.

As politically incorrect as this might be, the issue isn't one most people would be willing to make such a great sacrifice over. Sure, in principle we all believe in the equality of human beings - but the issue of the rights of  the GLT community is one best fought in the individual domiciles of the people affected. It's not ready for road trips - it hasn't even learned to drive on the streets of its own hometown yet.

I say that the movement risks damaging itself by talking about a boycott, that it risks polarizing the home crowd even further, that it has no business messing in international politics when it has yet to conquer its own domestic ones. It brings us back to the first argument: that it will do no good.  Not that it's wrong or "uppity" but that it will do no good and might, in fact, do harm.

Even as I write activists in Toronto are meeting to discuss a boycott.  Whether Canada should engage in one. Kevin Beaulieu, the executive director of Pride Toronto, in an interview Thursday, said, "With Russia preparing to host the Olympics, which means a commitment to human rights, there's an opportunity here to bring the spotlight on what's happening, particularly in this country, and try to make a change."

Yes. Absolutely. This is definitely an opportunity in the Sun Tzu mold. One that should be capitalized upon. But not with a boycott. I can't say that I am aware of any major boycott that has successfully changed anything.  Sit ins work. Sit outs don't.

So, no Boycott.  The financial, political and personal loss would be staggering and the gain minimal or non-existent.

Which is not to say that protests should not be made.

Abraham Lincoln, the great American emancipator, said, "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men."  And he was right. We should not pretend that we think it's all hunky-dory just so we can get a seat at the Olympic table. We should not gloss over the human rights violations taking place - this is a global village and we are all responsible to one another.

While both Canada and American Olympic committees have come out and stated that they expected all athletes and Olympic support people to comply with the local laws while in Sochi, that they will condone no acts of outright civil disobedience on Russian soil, the mere presence of people of the homosexual community will serve as a de facto protest.

Propaganda is a form of communication aimed towards influencing the attitude of the community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda statements may be partly false and partly true. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.

As opposed to impartially providing information, propaganda, in its most basic sense, presents information primarily to influence an audience. Propaganda often presents facts selectively (thus possibly lying by omission) to encourage a particular synthesis, or uses loaded messages to produce an emotional rather than rational response to the information presented. The desired result is a change of the attitude toward the subject in the target audience to further a political, religious or commercial agenda. Propaganda can be used as a form of ideological or commercial warfare.wikipedia

It is important to keep in mind that Russia's laws, the laws under scrutiny, regard the propaganda related to the "homosexual issue" and not the "issue" itself. Being gay is not illegal. Engaging in creating or spreading propaganda related to the issue is. The sticky bits will be in the interpretation of the word "propaganda".

But what could be less "propaganda-ish" than a living, breathing human being who refuses to deny what they are?

As Dashiell Bennett says in The Atlantic Wire this morning, "But one thing we can do is expose Russians to more gay people and prove that they just regular people. Or extraordinary athletes. What could be more powerful ("propaganda" even?) than for a gay athlete (or straight supporter, like Nick Symmonds) to win a medal, shake the hand of a Russian Olympic official, and walk away with their head held high?"

You don't stay away ... you go. And you go proudly. You don't need to advertise your pride or engage in political acts after you're done your ski run or hockey game or curling match.  You just need to do them well. You can tell people all you want that you're every bit as gifted, good and deserving as the next  person. But it's better to show them, don't you think?

And, to be honest, the Olympics are the wrong venue for overt political protests. They steal the spotlight from the people who have worked very hard to get there. In a way they, make a mockery of the event itself.

We have to do it like Jesse Owens did. He showed them. He showed them good.

As Phil Ochs said, "In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.

The protest, the greatest protest possible, is going.

Previously: Daniel Alfdredsson: I Said, He Said, They Said