Sochi 2014: A Boycott in Retrospect

olympic

I am a teaching assistant in an introductory English literature course at Queen’s. One of my major responsibilities is executing an hour-long tutorial every Friday afternoon for a section of 30 students in the class of 240. We normally talk about the literature the professor has assigned, as well as address any questions or concerns that might arise throughout the semester. This passed Friday, I took the opportunity to reset the year-long course overall and tried to remind the students of the course’s larger discussion on resistance as both a literary theme and as an abstract concept.

At one point I prompted the students thusly:

“Does anyone have any thoughts or comments on resistance?”
Blank stares.
“Nothing?”
And I waited for a bit.
“They tell me in Teaching Assistant Workshops that silence is my friend.”
Silence.
“We have been reading resistance literature all year. Nobody has some original idea on resistance?”

Finally, a cautious but bright-eyed young lady, with slim features and freckles, took the bait:

“I think resistance is redundant,” she said. “I mean it doesn’t exist in society as we know it.”
“As eloquent as that seems,” I replied, “I think the people in Ukraine might disagree with you.”
“And Venezuela,” another student chipped-in. “I think resistance definitely exists in society, maybe not in the form we have been reading in these old poems but it certainly exists in new and effecting ways.”

Smart kids, these ones. Eventually, I navigated the conversation around to our own personal acts of resistance, and I brought up the Sochi Olympics. Of course all of the students had watched the Olympics, and all had enjoyed the victories of the hockey teams, the curlers, those Quebecois sister skiers, and the impressive medal count. None had stopped to consider the larger action of participating in the witnessing, consumption, and complicity of an Olympic Games being held in a country where a group of people’s rights of expression are being silenced, and who are being violently and systematically hunted, assaulted, and in some instances even killed for being gay.

For the last three weeks, people have been asking me if I have or had an eye on the Olympics. Typically, my answer would be yes. A resounding and emphatic yes. I love the stories, the triumphs, the defeats, and the impressive level of athleticism on display at the Olympics. Curling and hockey are my sports to watch, but I would just as easily waste an afternoon watching speed skating, freestyle skiing, biathlon, or pairs figure skating. I am a sports guy and a pretty proud Canadian. The Olympics are essentially my catnip. But this year, I said no.

I don’t think the Canadian Olympic team should have attended the games in the face of Russia’s anti-gay legislation, and the culture of homophobia that is being cultivated across the country. And since Canada is a country whose constitutional rights include freedom of expression, thought, association, and same-sex marriage, I was appalled they would openly accept an invitation to participate in an international sporting event in a country where homosexual men and women are not allowed to live and act as per his/her nature. I mean, if a self-identifying homophobe asks me to come to his house for dinner, I say no thanks. I can eat elsewhere.

Most people thought I was just grandstanding. “Think about the athletes,” was what a number of my friends and family members said to me, “they train their whole life for these games and to miss out on that would be devastating.” Canada sent 222 athletes to the Olympics. None of which were amateurs competing in their first international events. In fact, many were highly decorated world champions. And every single player on the men’s hockey team is a millionaire at least 6x over. So, robbing these exceptional and highly privileged athletes the opportunity to compete internationally rang mum to me in the face of the nasty oppression of literally thousands of homosexuals in Russia, who live in fear due to their sexuality.

Russia is a fiercely conservative country. This increase in conservatism is due to a collection of things but mostly the rise of the National Russian Socialist Party in the face of abject poverty after the collapse of communism (a large contingent of socialists are Neo-Nazis), and to the position of the Russian Orthodox Church as the increasingly dominant religion throughout the country (roughly 70% of Russians identify as Russian Orthodox). When these two attitudes collide, a venomous and abrasive subculture of homophobic vigilante groups have sprung up around the country and in the big Russian cities.

Recently, CBC ran a story on the Russian documentary “Hunted in Russia” that shows in detail the viciousness of these homophobic vigilante groups that cruise gay communities, isolating suspected homosexuals, calling them pedophiles, and then brutally assaulting them, disfiguring them, and in some cases, murdering them. These actions are public and the police have even been known to turn the other cheek. Horrifying events that I don’t think anybody with a conscious can ignore. Certainly, it’s behavior I don’t think anyone would implicitly condone by accepting an invitation to come to the country to compete in an international event that supports inclusivity and equal opportunity. Russia’s politics and legislation is the opposite of what the Olympics represents, and Canada should have taken a stand for their people and for people whose lives and rights are threatened on a daily basis.

At the end of the day, I watched a total of 3 periods of Olympic hockey. I feel pretty ashamed about that because the hockey was boring and slow, and Canada’s dominance wasn’t even challenged. On the other hand, Russia received a massive influx of money and corporate sponsorship, and then before the Olympic torch could be handed to Brazil for the next summer games, they promptly invaded Ukraine.

I am starting to get a bit ranty now and I am losing my point. I am not trying to sound anti-Russian but I prefer my sporting events to be benign altercations between clubs that pretend to represent specific regions but have no players on their rosters from the cities they call home. And I most certainly would rather have a government and an Olympic committee that has the courage and the fortitude to say to Russia’s Olympic invitation, “thanks but I would rather play elsewhere.”

Now, does anyone have any comments or thoughts on resistance?

-tphillers

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2 thoughts on “Sochi 2014: A Boycott in Retrospect

  1. I have been anti-olympic for a while, mostly on the grounds of what they do to the locality’s working class and unemployed populations as well as mass escalated gentrifictaion of neighbourhoods. I am very disappointed that Canada sent athletes. One person’s Olympic experience as an athlete is not worth nearly as much as one person’s human rights violation. Sochi was a nice big ‘hugs and kisses’ way of turning the eyes of the international community away from things that really matter. And I’m wondering how much better Brazil will be. Or how much better the Vancouver Olympics were for the indigenous populations in the region and the un/underemployed. It’s a tough cycle to break.

  2. Thanks for your comment Tara. I think you’re absolutely right that Sochi was a distraction from larger social problems, and a not-so-subtle one at that. But, I hope that my post brings to the fore the unusual circumstance of people still obsessively following the Olympics, despite the knowledge of these egregious human rights violations. You, obviously, figured that out a while ago.

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