Is a potential boycott of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games not in itself a harbinger of further marginalisation?

by Riley Frost

Largely unsuccessful, the 1980 Summer Olympics boycott provided us with the blueprint for what could come next year; would an international boycott provide a sense of unity or further polarise Russia from a global community that is becoming ever more welcoming to those previously considered to be on the fringes of modern society?

On the 20th January 1980, US President Jimmy Carter issued a stern ultimatum stipulating that if the Soviet Union were not to withdraw troops from Afghanistan within one month then the United States would boycott the Olympic games due to be held in Moscow that summer. One month passed and with Soviet troops still very much on Afghan soil President Carter stuck to his word and announced that the United States would not be taking part in the games. Of course the logic behind Carter’s decision was rather direct; he would take the shine off of the games and divert attention to the pressing issue of the Soviet invasion of a country he claimed to be under attack. It was deemed by some to be an embarrassing admission by the States that Russia was advancing in its ploy to control trade routes around and across the Indian Ocean, something that America was very keen to halt and the Soviets were keen to package as an attempt to liberate Afghan communists. Much to the embarrassment of the Carter administration, many NATO countries – whatever their stance on the Soviet occupation – were not willing to follow in America’s very large footsteps. At one point Muhammed Ali was dispatched to visit Tanzania, Nigeria and Senegal in a bid to convince them to stand united with the States but even this proved unfruitful. All in all a total of 65 countries followed the call however despite sounding like a significant proportion of the Olympic contingent, many countries were certainly not considered sporting heavyweights with the likes of Qatar, Belize and Gabon among various others included in the final 65.

Not only was the lack of international cohesion the first stumbling block in a somewhat lacklustre attempt to stand united but it in itself further detracted from the reason for doing so in the first place. Of course regardless of one’s viewpoint as to the real reason for Carter’s desire to shine the spotlight on the situation in Afghanistan, many overlooked this as the issue of greatest importance and placed the greatest emphasis on the misrepresentation of China, East Germany and the United States within a sporting capacity. In addition to this, it was clear to many that with the world watching, the games were very much held tight within a Soviet stranglehold and whether they had to cheat their way there, they were very keen to assert their dominance and show the world that they were not only to be recognised as a military heavyweight but also that Soviet genetics were far better structured than those further afield.  The point here is that many knew that they were cheating – it was obvious –  the fact they could demonstrate to an international audience that they had the capacity to corrupt the world’s biggest sporting spectacle was almost sickening for many watching at home. From an athlete’s perspective not only did they have to compete with widespread corruption but also intense media awareness that both America and East Germany, two sporting heavyweights simply weren’t there meaning those who won gold were instantly placed under scrutiny as to the legitimacy of their very well deserved medal. The achievements of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe were still questioned by some despite both being clear favourites and by some distance at that. The games were ruined; illegitimate, poorly officiated and bit-part. Many, both those who represented their country and those who participated in the boycott had trained tirelessly for 4 years only to compete in a messy version of the games or in the worst case not have the opportunity to compete at all. The world was polarised. Many forgot about Afghanistan as world media attention was diverted to corruption and the mis-treatment of those who had devoted their lives to their respective sports.

In  6 months time we will be watching; how many we are watching remains to be seen. We are no longer living in 1980 and the world is a wickedly different place – even more so from a social standpoint, So would a boycott be the right thing to do? Many would argue that it would show Russia that the world will not tolerate their heavy-handed attitude to gay rights with various public figures such as Stephen Fry among others coming out to show their support for such a notion. Of course it goes without saying that the more coverage the better; there will always be someone else out there that can be further educated, there will always be individuals and groups that need to be brought into the 21st century and there will always be those who seek to oppress. However, when we live in a world where anything is just a click away it has been close to impossible for even the most ignorant of individuals to have not been made aware of the oppression the Russian government exerts upon the gay contingent of their population; whether it be Reuters, BBC or coverage from The Sun, we have all been made aware. In 1980 the games were plagued by a sense of inequality, of unfairness and of disappointment that those who had worked so tirelessly for the whole of their lives were being denied an opportunity to shine at their brightest. Similarly, the struggle for equality in Russia is an ongoing battle with many such as Pussy Riot for one devoting their lives for the right to free speech. This therefore means that if one is to further advance the gains these brave individuals have made then we must make the 2014 Winter Olympic Games the most exciting spectacle on earth. If we are to reduce the competing contingent and reduce the level of competition then one could be forgiven for feeling that the games would fall into ruin and phrase ‘what if’ would the most overused expression of February next year. Putin has sought to ban all form of protest at the games, something that has been well documented over the past week and many will know that oppression on the whole is not something that can be sustained. Like a coil ready to spring, Russia is prepared and it would be misinformed to suggest that the Olympic community (Russians included) won’t use this as a platform for expression and protest within the Olympic arena as well as outside of it. The scenes at the medal ceremony for the 4x400m relay victory ceremony where two Russian female athletes Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova kissed, only goes to show that Russia is ready to come out of the cold and Russians are ready to come out too. With this as well as the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics in mind, it simply would not make sense to boycott the Olympic Games – arguably the largest show of international solidarity that exists today. It would be close to impossible to persuade a 100% boycott and with that notion of solidarity off the table, it is clear that we must stand united through full commitment to these games. The maintenance of a fair and level playing field for all regardless of race, gender or creed must be upheld in order to adhere to the core principal of the games and the concept of competition in general.

We must encourage the weight of the media coverage towards these issues to continue to further grow and we must bring Russia to account but what we must not do is interfere directly with the Russian Government themselves – something the IOC is very much aware of- for to do this would in itself undermine the very concept of freedom. In banging on the door of the Kremlin, the world’s media has the opportunity to strike a blow to the very heart of the anti-minority tact the Russian government has adopted.
It has to be said that we will not overcome this issue quickly, we will not overcome this next year nor probably will we in the next 5 or 10 years but it is this sustained condemnation that must be upheld. As the world moves more and more towards becoming a global community we must continue to educate and bring those guilty of prejudice to justice, we must praise the work of the brave few who are willing to come forward and we must remain cohesive. It is for that reason that a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi will not bring further cohesion but create further diffusion.  If we are to succeed then we must allow these games to blossom.

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