Gay rights activists hold a banner reading "Homophobia – the religion of bullies" during their action on Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on Sunday, July 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Evgeny Feldman)
There are few people in the sports world I respect more than Cyd Zeigler the founder of the website Outsports, which deals with the sporting lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes. I tweeted Mr. Zeigler’s excellent article titled “Don’t Boycott Olympics Ban Russia From Competing Instead” precisely because it was incisive and made me think. I do however feel that on principle I need to state that I strongly disagree with his central premise.
Zeigler’s argument is that Russia should be treated as a pariah state not unlike South Africa during the time of apartheid, excluded from most major international sporting events.
As he writes, “Think a Russian ban is crazy? There’s precedent for it. In 1964, the IOC [International Olympic Committee] banned South Africa from participating in the Olympic Games because of apartheid in that nation. The ban remained in force for 28 years, until apartheid ended. Let Russia, as host, watch the games from the sidelines as 200 other nations slide across the ice in Sochi.”
I disagree with this demand, even though I oppose with every fiber Putin’s brutal crackdown on Russia’s LGBT community.
I disagree for three main reasons. First and most obviously, such a move would do far more damage to the Russian athletes themselves than to Vladamir Putin. If we are against making the athletes political pawns, as Zeigler has written in an article opposing a US boycott, then we should stay true to that no matter the country. Athletes shouldn’t have to pay the price for being born in a country abysmal on human rights.
Second is the critical question of who gets to initiate such a powerful demand. Inside the apartheid South Africa cited by Zeigler, there was an actual organization called the South African Non-Racialized Olympic Committee (SANROC) that called for its own country’s exclusion. SANROC organizers like Dennis Brutus went to jail or were shot in the name of keeping South Africa out of the Olympics and other international sporting events. Black and brown athletes, even when they were the best on the field, were excluded from South Africa’s teams. We haven’t heard any such a demand from Russia’s LGBT athletes or straight athlete allies. If we did, it would change the calculus of this dramatically.
This leads to the third fallacy in the “expel Russia” argument. Zeigler writes, “Instead of asking athletes, coaches and fans to risk disqualification, arrest or worse in Sochi, Russia this winter, it’s time for the IOC itself to take a stand.”