Boycotting Olympics not a good response to Russia’s homosexuality law

The Olympics showcase the limits of physical human potential, and a boycott of the Sochi Games this coming winter would be a disservice to the men and women who have trained for years and decades for this very event.

Across the United States and several other countries, thousands expressed their discontent with a Russian law that bans gay “propaganda” toward minors. The law, which is overwhelmingly supported by Russian citizens and their government, staunchly defies the equality principles set out by the International Olympic Committee.

In June, Russian President Vladmir Putin signed the legislation that could imprison foreigners and tourists for displaying anything related to homosexuality in front of minors. The athletes and their families who travel to see the Games won’t be protected from the law during the two-week span of the Winter Olympics. Violence against LGBT individuals in Russia has erupted recently, and there’s no telling if foreigners traveling to Sochi will be protected from it.

This deep concern for human rights and safety has led outspoken people like Dan Savage to protest the Olympics through boycotts of the Games and vodka: Savage called for a boycott of Stolichnaya vodka, which is not even Russian, it’s Latvian. 

At first this seems to be a logical and understandable knee-jerk reaction to a policy that runs against the majority opinion of the U.S. Americans are increasingly more open and accepting of LGBT issues, and it’s been a long and tough fight to arrive where the U.S. is today. Of course, this country is far from perfect in its treatment of LGBT citizens.

Russia is where we were three or four decades ago. To us and many other nations, the propaganda law seems like a travesty. But more reprehensible would be disallowing American athletes from competing in the single event that has come to define their lives up to this point. For several, the Sochi Games will be their only opportunity to compete, and for many others, this may be their only year to compete and win a medal.

We boycotted the Moscow Olympics in 1980, and it didn’t cause the Russians to pull out of Afghanistan. Boycotting these Olympics will not transform Russian public opinion, either.

That doesn’t mean that Russia isn’t responsible for treating all participating athletes morally and equally. It should change. It needs to change. But a boycott won’t be the cause for that change.

Russia needs to be held accountable for it, and the IOC needs to step up and assert its authority. This propaganda law could prove dangerous to visitors, and it’s the responsibility of the IOC to remedy that as much as it is for Russia to recognize how draconian its law is.

Boycotting the Olympics because of Russia’s inequality doesn’t fix anything, but it does hurt our athletes.

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Russia’s law as a homosexual law, but to better reflect the content of the law, the headline was changed to include the phrase “homosexuality law.” The Daily Illini regrets the error.