Should the EU boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia? Bosc d'Anjou
LGBT supporters demonstrating in New York City, U.S.A

British actor and activist Stephen Fry recently posted an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron, urging the United Kingdom to boycott the Winter Olympics. The Games will be held in Sochi, Russia, in February 2014.

Mr Cameron, however, has rejected this plea, despite expressing his own concern and being sympathetic to Mr Fry’s views. It is in times like these that power politics comes into play, as the UK will not want to damage its relationship with Russia. Germany is following a similar logic.

However, increased awareness needs to be raised regarding the treatment of LGBT people in Russia. According to The Economist, "Russian officials still seem baffled by the idea that outsiders really care about the issue".

Can the European Union play a role in fixing this? 

A more acceptable kind of discrimination

Some might argue that the recently approved Russian laws targeting LGBT people are not so important as to warrant a full-scale boycott. After all, if we refuse to participate every time we disagree with someone, boycotts will lose their power – and, frankly, we may not get much done in the end. 

Yet, consider how the issue would be addressed if discriminating laws in Russia were approved targeting any other minority. If Russia – or any other country – adopted laws that made, for instance, "propaganda promoting racial equality" illegal, there would probably be an international public outcry. The debate would be far more intense. International actors would intervene, and probably exhert pressure on Russia using their positions as potential participants in the Games.

In contrast, while it is the LGBT community that is being targeted, no one is anticipating any bilateral boycotts. 

Not enough outrage

Do not get it wrong: Russia’s LGBT laws are indeed a hot topic of debate today, at least in some circles. The pressing issue is that they are not regarded as sufficiently important to motivate large scale calls for boycotts.

And why is this troubling? Because it is a telling symptom of the overall status the LGBT community enjoys at present. Even if most EU countries hold good or tolerable legislation affecting the LGBT community, public opinion is still hostile towards this group or, perhaps more often, simply indifferent to LGBT discrimination. This explains why so many people are not infuriated by a country hosting the Olympics while openly discriminating against love.

Too few will go on the barricades for this cause. 

The failure of the IOC

Not even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has managed to speak up. Even when, according to the Olympic Charter, its role is "to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement".

After a short consideration, the IOC actually decided that they do not take the Russian LGBT laws to constitute a breach of their charter.

Such a position makes one wonder what, if anything, would contravene the Olympic spirit. Human rights violations in China, leading up to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, did not either, as far as the IOC was concerned. 

As the main sponsor of the Olympics, Coca-Cola could act as a force for change – but they have chosen not to. Publicity is a difficult game; it would probably be too much to expect that a global corporation would play a leading role in this matter. 

But that leaves us with the question of who, if anyone, can and will take a firm stand – if neither the participant states, the IOC nor the main sponsors are willing to do so. 

What about the EU?

An answer to this question could be the European Union.

Even if individual member states do not want to ruffle anyone’s feathers, the EU has a real possibility to speak up. Maybe.

This, of course, leads us to the fundamental question of whether the Union has yet to evolve into anything more than a collection of its member states.

And the next Olympic Winter Games represent an opportunity to answer it: to demonstrate that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

If the EU can find the strength to counter Olympic indifference to LGBT discrimination in Russia – and do so in a way that will not significantly impact on individual member states’ bilateral relations with Russia, nor on the professional ambitions of athletes – then the EU can really claim for itself a position of relevant norm-entrepreneur in the international community. 

Setting a precedent

A further debate should be raised here: would it be best to opt for a large scale boycott or to promote subtle protests during the Games? Voices coming from the Russian LGBT community have pointed to the latter as their favoured option.

Additionally, if the European Union successfully protests against next year’s Winter Olympics, it could set a precedent for the future scope for action. The FIFA World Cup in 2018 is also scheduled to be held in Russia, meaning that this story will repeat itself four years from now.

And, even worse, the 2022 World Cup will be hosted by Qatar – a country that bans male homosexuality outright. We might expect quite a few boycotts in the coming years.

Some people may, of course, claim that sports have nothing to do with politics, and that a all of this is therefore irrelevant. However, they would be wrong, as Mr Fry reminds us in his letter: "Everyone knows politics interconnects with everything for “politics” is simply the Greek for “to do with the people". 

In the end, the question is perhaps what we appreciate the most: sports or human rights?

Edited by: Margarida Hourmat
Photo credits:
Bosc d'Anjou via Flickr