Beginning February 7th, the Winter Olympic Games will be held in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia. Over the course of 16 days, 98 events will be held. In most circumstances our focus would be on high-level competition and international camaraderie. But we cannot ignore the deplorable Russian human-rights environment. That’s why Americans should boycott the 22nd Winter Olympics.
Since the end of World War II, the Winter Olympics have been held without incident in relatively neutral sites. However in 1980, because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US led a boycott of the Summer Olympics Games held in Moscow.
The most apt comparison to the pending Olympic games is the 1936 Summer Olympic Games held in Berlin, Germany. At the time, Adolf Hitler ruled Germany and had instigated systematic persecution of Jews, gays, gypsies, the mentally and physically disadvantaged, as well as political and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah’s witnesses). Hitler became German Chancellor in January of 1933 and two months later, the Dachau concentration camp opened. In September of 1935, the Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of German citizenship and most civil rights. Nonetheless, the American Olympic committee maintained that German Jewish athletes were being treated fairly, even though German Jews were not permitted to participate in the games, and there was no American boycott.
1936 was a missed opportunity for Americans to protest the human-rights abuses of the German Nazis. Now we have a similar opportunity because of the deplorable conduct of the Russian government.
In June, Russian President Putin signed a law criminalizing gay “behavior” and propaganda. Nonetheless, the Russian government has assured Olympic officials that no member of the LGBT community will be discriminated against at Sochi. Even though the Russians have threatened dire consequences for advocating or demonstrating homosexuality.
Many prominent Americans are speaking out against Russian LGBT discrimination. But just as Nazi Germany’s systematic persecution extended beyond Jews to those regarded as second-class citizens, so Russian discrimination extends beyond the LGBT community to a wide variety of other groups.
Earlier this year, human rights’ advocates forced a United Nations hearing on Russian racial discrimination. “Roma, migrants from Central Asia and people from the Caucasus region suffer from both social stigma and state discrimination.”
The report submitted to the Committee gives extensive evidence on the specific targeting of visual groups and minorities by Russian police. Ethnic profiling persists and people from the Caucasus and Central Asia are particularly targeted. Racially motivated abuse towards students from Africa, Russian citizens, and refugees is commonly perpetrated by private individuals and groups and is also a frequent occurrence in police detention and in the prison system.The Russian government does little to curtail the activities of racially motivated gangs. Racial taunting is one of the persistent features of fan behavior at international soccer games played in Russia.
Human Rights Watch reports that the construction of the Winter Olympics’ facilities in Sochi have caused a variety of human-rights problems: “The Russian government is resettling some 2,000 families to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure. But not all of those evicted received fair compensation for their properties and in some cases, homeowners were forced out with no compensation at all.” Tens of thousands of migrant construction workers have been exploited, “with employers failing to pay their wages, confiscating workers’ passports, and forcing them to toil up to 12 hours a day with only one day off each month.”
Recently, a Russian commentator noted a new wave of anti-Semitism:
Since President Vladimir Putin first came to power, Russia has become a field where the threatening weeds of xenophobia and nationalism grow rampant. In Moscow, thousands have marched in nationalist demonstrations and taken part in riots. Crimes motivated by nationalism are so common that they are barely worth mentioning on the local crime news.
The parallels between contemporary Russia and 1936 Germany are disturbing. Since his recent election, Prime Minister Putin has suppressed political opposition on all fronts.
In 1980, America boycotted the Moscow Summer Olympics by refusing to allow our team to participate. In 2014 the most appropriate strategy would be an economic boycott – considering that the Sochi Winter Olympics are said to be the most expensive ever. Americans should refuse to travel to Sochi or to watch the games on television.
In 2011 NBC/Comcast bought the TV rights to the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics for $1 billion. So far NBC/Comcast has sold $800 million in advertising rights for the February games. Prime Sponsors include AT&T, Coca-Cola, Dow, General Electric, General Motors, Liberty Mutual, McDonalds, Omega, Panasonic, Procter and Gamble, Samsung, Smuckers, and Visa.
There’s ample opportunity to go online and sign petitions urging NBC and the games’ sponsors to condemn the Russian human rights abuses; for example https://www.change.org/petitions/stand-against-russia-s-brutal-crackdown-on-gay-rights-urge-winter-olympics-2014-sponsors-to-condemn-anti-gay-laws And https://www.facebook.com/Boycott2014WinterOlympicGamesInRussia?ref=br_tf
In 1936 Americans missed the chance to condemn horrific abuses by the Germans. That’s why it’s important to protest similar behavior by the Russians.
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at email@example.com