On Monday, Alexandr Zhukov, head of the Russian Olympic Committee, said that athletes competing in the 2014 winter Olympics in Sochi would not be discriminated against if they stayed away from kids.
"I would like to underline that the law which has been passed is applied only against propaganda of homosexual relations among minors," Zhukov said, referring to the recent passage of an anti-gay legislation by the Russian government. "If a person doesn’t try to impose his or her views in presence of children, sanctions can’t be taken against this person. Gay people can take part freely in the competitions and other Olympic events and don’t worry for their safety."
Zhukov comments come as calls for boycotting the Sochi Olympics are growing. Many are arguing that Russia's repression of gay rights is so bad that the United States and England should keep their athletes home. One British television personality compared Russia's treatment of homosexuals to Hitler's treatment of Jews during the Berlin Olympics in 1936.
There's no doubt that Russia's crackdown on gay rights has been brutal. Activists have been beaten and jailed. Some have even been killed. The behavior of Russian authorities is antiquated, reminiscent of Stalin' Great Purge.
But President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were right to reject calls to boycott the games. Here are five reasons why:
1. Olympic boycotts don't work. The United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics in the Soviet Union over the invasion of Afghanistan, while the Russians returned the favor during the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Neither changed much: the Russians didn't leave Afghanistan until 1985, and the Russian boycott did little to turn the tide of the Cold War.
As President Obama said, a boycott would only harm the athletes. It would do nothing to change Russian policy toward homosexuals.
2. A boycott emboldens Vladimir Putin. Putin and his cronies are adamantly anti-homosexual, and if approval numbers are any indication, the majority of Russian people have absolutely no problem with that. A boycott would only rally most Russian around their leader. They would also give Putin another chance to stay he stood firm in the face of Western opposition. Russians absolutely love when he does this (see Edward Snowden).
3. There's the potential for a gay Jesse Owens. The American sprinter's victory in Berlin in 1936 was a refutation of all that Hitler and the Third Reich stood for. Owens' staggering four gold medal performances embarrassed the Fuehrer, who openly referred to blacks as Untermenschen, or sub-humans. Hitler was forced to watch Owens dominate his games.
A gay athlete in Sochi has the potential to do the same thing to Putin. There's the potential for an historic moment similar to Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists for African American rights at the 1968 Mexico City games. And even if a gay athlete doesn't win, other athletes have already promised to show their support for gay rights at the games, even in the face of possible punishment from the International Olympic Committee.
4. Even without the gay rights controversy, these Olympics have the potential to be a disaster for Putin. Putin is spending $50 billion on the games, making them the most expensive in history. There's the potential that it could be the most expensive disaster in the history of international sports.
For some reason (most suspect bribery), the IOC awarded the winter games to Russia despite the fact that Sochi is a subtropical city with average temperatures of 52 degrees in the winter. Russia has been stockpiling snow to make sure there's enough for the games. But the stockpiles are no guarantee: Sochi's weather is notoriously hard to predict; snow could disappear overnight.
The games will also give the international media a chance to highlight the rampant corruption and bribery occurring during preparation for the games. Putin has made his cronies richer through sweetheart contracts connected to the games. In May, opposition leader Boris Nemtsov and activist Leonid Martynyuk alleged some $30 billion has already been stolen.
"Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich," Martynyuk wrote on his blog in a post accompanying the report. "The absence of fair competition, cronyism... have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games."
There’s no doubt skipping the games would send a powerful message to Putin. But a more powerful message is to compete and express support for gay right while exposing and his archaic views to the world.