The upcoming Winter Olympics has put Russia's anti-gay laws in the center of the coverage of the games. The best way to get more attention is for this conversation to keep going all the way through next February, not by boycotting the games.
In the latest development, a spokesperson for the United States Olympic Committee clarified an earlier statement by his CEO that American athletes were expected to comply with local laws during the Olympics. The clarification was that Russia's law, which makes the expression of homosexual "propaganda" illegal, is "inconsistent with fundamental Olympic principles." Yet, that won't stop the U.S. from sending its athletes or advising them to "respect the laws of the host country." In other words, while U.S. Olympics doesn't approve of Russia's anti-gay laws, it's not condoning any civil disobedience against them.
But one thing we can do is expose Russians to more gay people and prove that they just regular people. Or extraordinary athletes. What could be more powerful ("propaganda" even?) than for a gay athlete (or straight supporter, like Nick Symmonds) to win a medal, shake the hand of a Russian Olympic official, and walk away with their head held high? We might even see a LGBT version of the famous 1968 "Black Power" salute. Those kind of gestures can be the most important of all, especially in a country that, in the words of one of its most famous athletes, pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva, considers itself "like normal, standard people."
The New Republic's Julia Ioffe — who in case you haven't heard, actually knows a few things about Russia — has the clearest and most succinct explanation for why a boycott of the Sochi Games is a bad idea: It simply won't help. You can't change Russian (or any country's) minds by scolding them from a distance. We boycotted an Olympics in Moscow 33 years ago, and they boycotted the Games in Los Angeles four years later, and most (objective) observers would probably agree that the Games and the athletes were worse off for it. (Even if it allowed to United States to completely dominate the podium in 1984.) But, more importantly, in the realm of global politics, it changed absolutely nothing.
The more that foreigners try to tell a country what to do, the more likely that country is to keep doing what you don't like. (See: Iran, North Korea, etc.) And they will be even more defiant and angry about than before, America included. Russian attitudes are deplorable, but that's a problem Russia will have to solve on its own.
It is a fair argument to say that a boycott is more about standing up for our principles than changing theirs. But, you might say that bringing these countries together, even (or especially) those we disagree with, is the real Olympic principle. Iran, North Korea, Qatar, Uganda, China: They all get to participate despite having laws and behaving in ways that a lot of people find deplorable. The only organization more stubborn than the Russian government might be the International Olympic Committee. But their Games still bring people together and make the world a little smaller. It won't change everyone or everything, but it just might help more than it hurts.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.