The 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled for mid-February, 2014, in Sochi Russia. Recently, there have been calls for the United States to boycott those Olympics, a la Jimmy Carter in 1980. Back then, the issue was Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviet Union hoped for its Summer Games to be a huge propaganda coup–we wanted to head that off. Now there are two reasons expressed for an Olympic boycott. First, the Obama administration floated a trial balloon over boycotting over Edward Snowden, still comfortably ensconced in Moscow’s Sheremetyovo airport, a la Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s sort of oddly prophetic 2004 movie, The Terminal. (Actually, I think Snowden may be out of the airport temporarily). Anyway, the Russians aren’t interested in extraditing Snowden, and Snowden did a Very Bad Thing. Essentially, he revealed that the NSA was involved in massive spying on US citizens, which thing we never suspected, despite the fact that precisely that kind of intel-gathering was central to the plots of every episode of 24, Homeland, and the most recent James Bond movie. Anyway, over half the American people regard Snowden as a hero–we’re not going to boycott an Olympics over him.
But the other reason to boycott an Olympics is more serious. It relates to the fact that Russia has gotten really weirdly religious in recent years, with the Orthodox church both insurgent and oddly fundamentalist. One way this has manifested itself has been the passage (the unanimous passage), of ludicrously anti-gay legislation. The law prohibits anyone from “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.” Human Rights Watch called it “”a profoundly discriminatory and dangerous bill that is bound to worsen homophobia in Russia.” Pride rallies, public displays of affection, or even just being openly gay can get you arrested in Russia. A second law provides for three years in prison for anyone “offending the religious sensibilities of the faithful.” The latter was partly a reaction to the actions of Pussy Riot, the completely awesome Russian all-female punk protest band, who staged a massive protest in an Orthodox cathedral, and got arrested for it. Both laws passed both Duma and the Federation Council, the two legislative bodies of the Russian Federation, with full support from Vladimir Putin.
The US has other beefs with Russia. Obviously a big one is Syria, where Russia supports the thugocracy of Bashar Assad in that country’s miserable civil war. Since the US supports (more or less covertly) the rebels opposing Assad, the whole thing has a distinct Cold War flavor; another US-Russian proxy war. We’d like to push for nuclear disarmament; Putin’s stone-walled us there. Plus Putin stole Bob Kraft’s Super Bowl ring. I know that last one isn’t very important, but it strikes me as oddly symbolic.
Robert Kraft is the owner of the New England Patriots. In 2005, he went with a group of American businessmen to Russia, and met with Putin. At a reception, Putin mentioned how much he admired Kraft’s ring. Kraft’s Patriots had just won the Super Bowl, and Kraft was proud of the ring. (Super Bowl rings are these really gaudy baubles). Kraft showed Putin the ring; Putin put it in his pocket and walked off. Kraft would very much like it back.
Putin, when apprised of this story, insisted that Kraft gave it to him. Or maybe there was some kind of translation error. Either way, he’s not giving it back, and that says something. One is that the leader of the Russian federation has sticky fingers. I see you nodding: don’t we Americans see Russia as essentially a kleptocracy–a massive criminal undertaking? Another is that Putin likes his bling really ostentatious and garish. But another is this: Kraft was part of a deputation of American businessmen interested in investing in Russia. And that’s important too. As loathsome as Vladimir Putin usually comes across in American media, Russia under his rule has been a fantastic success story. We Americans have a lot of skin in that game.
We have to remember that Russia has essentially only known about 8 years of functioning democracy–the Presidency of Boris Yeltsin, who served in office from 1991-99. Oh, and about five months under Alexander Kerensky in 1918. When Yeltsin resigned, the Presidency passed to Putin. Yeltsin was fantastically unpopular when he left. He tried to transform Russia’s decaying industrial infrastructure to capitalism. It was shock therapy, instant privatization. And the price was immense corruption. A lot of Russian oligarchs sort of didn’t get capitalism and failed, leading to unemployment and suffering. A few got it all too well, leading to criminality. . . and suffering.
And also fantastic success. For example, another big sports story recently has been the NBA basketball team, the New Jersey Nets. A Russian billionaire, Mikhail Prokhorov bought the chronically underachieving franchise, and got co-owner Jay-Z to front a move to Brooklyn. They built a huge new arena, which they can fill any non-game night by announcing a concert featuring their co-owner and his wife. Meanwhile, Prokhorov has built a super-team. Their line-up next year: Deron Williams, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson? They could win it all. And that weird partnership–Prokhorov and Jay-Z, two self-made men, as long as you don’t scrutinize too closely where they got their start-up capital. Russian billionaire? In minerals? Who got real real successful in around 1995? And what exactly was Jay-Z doing before he found his rap muse?
“Behind every great fortune is a great crime.” Honore Balzac.
Let’s face it: Putin‘s been a success. He’s popular in Russia because Russia has prospered as never before under his leadership. Massive economic growth, high employment, tremendous growth in energy and industry and high tech and the automotive industry. Yes, he’s former KGB, and yes he has ties to the Russian Mob, and yes he’s a weird guy, a narcissistic self-promoter. He’s also the best Czar Russia’s had. Because, let’s face it, Russia’s basically always been an autocracy. It’s always been heavily bureaucratic (there’s never been a time when Gogol’s The Inspector-General wasn’t hilarious), and it’s always been violent and it’s always been mean and cold and everyone’s always liked their vodka. That didn’t change under Communism, and it hasn’t changed under Putin.
One difference is that the Orthodox Church, once banned, is again resurgent. And Putin’s cultivated a cult of macho. The sad result of that combination is a newly minted homophobia. Which we’re against, and should be. But we don’t want some ineffectual symbolic protest, I don’t think. Can we make a difference? Would a boycott be a good idea?
One symbolic action is to toss your bottles of Stolichnaya Vodka; that’s been happening, despite the fact that Stoli’s CEO condemned the anti-gay laws in very strong terms. Another is diplomacy–I do think the Obama administration needs assurances that gay athletes will be safe in Sochi. The LGBT community is furious over this, and absolutely right to be. We should join their voices however we can.
But I’m against a boycott. I think the best thing we can do is cheer for all athletes, straight and gay, and most especially those who wear a gay pride ribbon while they compete. Most especially, we should cheer for Blake Skjellerup, speed skater from New Zealand, who has been an outspoken opponent of the boycott movement, saying “I’m an out gay man, and I’m going to a country where it’s basically illegal to be gay. I think (competing) is a great statement of support. I don’t know what greater thing I could do.”
Past Olympians, especially gay athletes, have opposed a boycott: Martina Navratilova, Greg Louganis. Harvey Fierstein opposes it. Most have pointed to the example of Jesse Owens, and the statement he made when he competed in the ’36 Berlin Olympics. I think we shouldn’t boycott. Just cheer really loudly for Blake Skjellerup. And any other out athletes at the Games.