Why This Gay Athlete Changed Her Mind about Boycotting the Winter Olympics (and Why You Should Too)

Image via GLAAD

Image via GLAAD

When Russia passed their anti-gay propaganda law in June of 2013, I was outraged. Like most members of the LGBTQ community and supporters of LGBTQ rights, I saw it as a horrific assault on basic human rights and fundamental freedoms. While the law specifies that it only bans the, “promotion of homosexuality to minors,” the common wisdom is that the law makes it illegal to hold any public demonstrations in favor of LGBTQ rights, distribute any materials related to LGBTQ rights, state that same-sex relationships are equivalent to heterosexual relationships, or defend LGBTQ rights in any way. Essentially, the law purports to make it de facto illegal to be homosexual, trans*, or queer in Russia. Add to that Russia’s history of hostility toward homosexuality, and the increasing prevalence of hate crimes motivated by homophobia, and the entire situation becomes a human rights disaster.

More pressing was the fact that the Winter Olympic Games were going to be hosted in Sochi in February of 2014. My immediate concern shifted to the athletes, some of whom are gay. Would Russia respect international norms that prohibit discrimination? Would Russia honor the agreement it made when it was awarded the Olympics and respect the rights of gay athletes? Would gay athletes be safe while in Russia competing? Would they be arrested by Russian authorities? Fined? Jailed? The more I thought about it, the angrier I became.

After my anger subsided a bit, like many people, I called for a boycott of the games unless they were relocated out of Russia. And if they weren’t, I thought the best course of action was for us to avoid them altogether. I sincerely believed that in order to protest this blatant violation of both international human rights law and the principles embodied in the Olympic Charter, we shouldn’t participate. Ultimately, however, I changed my mind.

Growing up I played several sports. Little League baseball (softball when I was older), gymnastics, wrestling, and my favorite sport – ice hockey. I learned how to ice skate when I was three. My father enrolled me in a developmental hockey program at six. Following that, I played in a co-ed House league, and eventually I made the move to a girls travel team; criss-crossing the Northeastern seaboard to play teams from Hackensack to Plattsburg.

Hockey was my life. My teammates were my family. The game was important to me and it took dedication. From getting up at 5am for an early morning practice, to traveling eight plus hours on a bus to a tournament, to playing games in freezing cold rinks –  so cold that you can hardly feel your fingers gripping the stick as you try to shoot the puck – hockey, like all sports, requires intense commitment (especially at its highest level, i.e. the Olympics).  And it’s for this very reason that I changed my mind about boycotting the games; our athletes have worked too hard and sacrificed too much.

Our athletes have devoted their time and energy in order to compete on behalf of our nation. They have been training for months, going to practice early, and staying late. Giving up endless days, nights and weekends to prepare both mentally and physically to compete at the highest level. Sacrificing time with their family and friends in order to be ready. What message would we be sending them if we decided to keep them home? And further, since we aren’t keeping them home and they actually want to go compete (even the gay ones), what message are we sending them if we individually choose not to watch the games because we don’t support Putin or the way of Russian thinking? When we choose to boycott the games we wrongly shift the spotlight to those who don’t deserve it, and away from our extraordinary athletes who do. Instead, we should compete (and watch) the Games with pride  – pun intended. Further, while we should be, and have every right to be concerned for the safety of our athletes, if we let those fears consume us, then we let those who denigrate us win.

Moreover, while this law is despicable, and real harm is and will be done because if it, we should send our athletes – gay and straight – to compete for Olympic gold. We should show that one’s sexuality has no bearing whatsoever on their abilities, and that in sports (as in life) hard work, dedication, and merit determines winners and losers. We should use the Olympic world stage as our protest, not shy away from it.

In closing, we are sending some kick ass athletes to Sochi next month. Athletes who have been pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into preparing. And while we may not be happy about the political situation as it relates to LGBTQ people, and we should keep fighting for LGBTQ rights in Russia (and all over the world) long after the Olympics end, we shouldn’t boycott them. As my hockey coach always said, “take your frustrations out on the ice and win!” Let’s bring home some medals!

Image via GLAAD

Ilyssa Fuchs

Ilyssa Fuchs is an attorney, freelance writer, and activist from New York City, who holds both a juris doctor and a political science degree. She is the founder of the popular Facebook page Politically Preposterous and a blog of the same name. Follow Ilyssa on Twitter @IlyssaFuchs, and be sure to check out her archives on Forward Progressives as well!

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  • MaryR

    Well stated, Lys. I too, had an initial knee-jerk reaction to boycott, and then realized the exact same conclusion. The best outcome will be many gay athletes on the podiums.

    I recall the black athlete Jesse Owens kicking ass in the 1936 Olympics in Germany. Success is the best revenge.

    • Jim Bean

      And if gays perform poorly generally, Putin’s going to stick it up your arse and say, ‘see what I mean?’ The Left’s inability to extrapolate is mindboggling.

      • Ilyssa

        Some athletes will perform poorly gay and straight. That goes to their ability not their sexuality. Your inability to extrapolate that is mindboggling. Asshole.

      • Jim Bean

        I never suggested they ‘would’ perform poorly. I said ‘what if’ and your mind went in every direction except the one laid before you.

      • Ilyssa

        If they perform poorly it’s because of their lack of ability, not because of their sexuality. It’s a false equivalency. If they perform poorly (and they happen to be gay) – let Putin say whatever the hell he wants about them, those of us with half a brain will equate it to poor preparation, poor performance, better competitors, etc. rather than their sexuality – which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to with their ability. Sorry for calling you an asshole, but there was no need for you to make a comment about the “left’s inability to extrapolate.” I can extrapolate just fine, and was very much aware when writing the article that if gay athletes performed poorly people like Putin would incorrectly blame their sexuality instead of their lack of ability. But just because they would doesn’t make them correct.

      • Jim Bean

        Fair enough. But they’ve gone to great lengths to get the spotlight pointed in their direction and that magnifies the risks. I hope they’re as qualified to manage the risks as they are to compete. Something tells me they are not.

        I hadn’t realized I was chatting with the author, but I don’t mind being called names, especially when the reason for it is included.

      • Ilyssa

        I think that’s a fair point, re hoping they are as qualified to manage the risks as they are to compete, but I think that is an individual decision each athlete has to make in deciding whether they want to attend and what kind of security personnel (if any) they think they need/can afford, and is separate and apart from whether or not we at home choose not to watch the Games.

      • Jim Bean

        Boycotting is sometimes an effective tool to financially leverage someone into pretending to agree with you. But in the end, not only have you forfeited an opportunity to persuade them to your way of thinking, you’ve created a new element of animosity.

  • Pipercat

    I refuse to watch the Olympics on TV. Low ratings also send a good message.

    • otonoh

      I agree and also not supporting coca cola would send a message

    • androphiles

      I’ll bet ratings will be at least normal. I’m going to be watching to see our gay athletes kick Russian ass.

    • Grazel

      It won’t send the message to Russia, the TV broadcasts only bring in money for the network primarily, and secondarily to the Olympic Foundation, and the advertisers. Russia gets their Olympic money out of the physical attendees and revenue generated by them at the games themselves. Boycotting is a moot point for me anyway as I neither attend the games in person, nor watch them on TV. I’ll likely hear a bit about the outcomes of events via FB and co-workers but I’m not going to seek it out. What’ll be of more interest will be any news stories that come from confrontations with anti-gay elements in Russia (law enforcement or civilian).

  • Miguel

    I think the President’s approach of sending a gay delegation to represent the USA is brilliant. Imagine the fallout for Russia if they try to arrest Billie Jean King.

  • MikeR

    Interesting that MaryR mentions Jesse Owens. We always pat ourselves on the back that the US Olympic committee showed class in insisting he participate. The full story is that Jewish American athletes Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller were benched and
    replaced by African American athletes Jesse Owens and Ralph Metcalfe in
    the 400-meter relay. The move was seen as a capitulation to Nazi
    anti-Semitism.

  • Matthew

    While I was growing up, I remember an incident where the ECB (English Cricket Board) wanted to do a tour to a still-apartheid South Africa. I seem to remember that their reasoning went along the same lines (it was a sports fixture and politics shouldn’t come into sport). They eventually cancelled the tour. America has a long way to go to be a post-racist and post-homophobic nation. What about if the Summer Olympics were given to Uganda? Would that suggest a different view? Where and how do you draw the line?