Why Banning Russia from the Olympics is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea

There are few people in the sports world I respect more than Cyd Zeigler the founder of the website Outsports, which deals with the sporting lives of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes. I tweeted Mr. Zeigler's excellent article titled “Don’t Boycott Olympics Ban Russia From Competing Instead” precisely because it was incisive and made me think. I do however feel that on principle I need to state that I strongly disagree with his central premise.

Zeigler’s argument is that Russia should be treated as a pariah state not unlike South Africa during the time of apartheid, excluded from most major international sporting events.

As he writes, "Think a Russian ban is crazy? There’s precedent for it. In 1964, the IOC [International Olympic Committee] banned South Africa from participating in the Olympic Games because of apartheid in that nation. The ban remained in force for 28 years, until apartheid ended. Let Russia, as host, watch the games from the sidelines as 200 other nations slide across the ice in Sochi."

I disagree with this demand, even though I oppose with every fiber Putin’s brutal crackdown on Russia’s LGBT community.

I disagree for three main reasons. First and most obviously, such a move would do far more damage to the Russian athletes themselves, than to Vladamir Putin. If we are against making the athletes political pawns, as Zeigler has written in an article opposing a US boycott, then we should stay true to that no matter the country. Athletes shouldn’t have to pay the price for being born in a country abysmal on human rights.

Second is the critical question of who gets to initiate such a powerful demand. Inside the apartheid South Africa cited by Zeigler, there was an actual organization called SANROC, the South African Non-Racialized Olympic Committee that called for their own country’s exclusion. SANROC organizers like Dennis Brutus went to jail or were shot in the name of keeping South Africa out of the Olympics and other international sporting events. Black and brown athletes, even when they were the best on the field, were excluded from South Africa's teams. We haven’t heard any such a demand from Russia’s LGBT athletes or straight athlete allies. If we did, it would change the calculus of this dramatically.

This leads to the third fallacy in the “expel Russia” argument. Zeigler writes, "Instead of asking athletes, coaches and fans to risk disqualification, arrest or worse in Sochi, Russia this winter, it’s time for the IOC itself to take a stand."

The IOC couldn't "take a stand" with two crutches and hydraulic lift. It was a flawed body during the Cold War. Now it's a corporate piranha masquerading as Nemo the Clown Fish, tearing countries to pieces under a miasma of soft-headed hooey about "bringing the world together through sports." Asking the IOC to be an ally in the fight against oppression is like asking a scorpion not to sting. The mere fact that the Winter Games are in Putin's Sochi - where the disappearance of 30 billion dollars in Olympic construction costs has elicited barely a pip from the IOC - only shows who they are and where they stand.

This connects to the last and most serious problem with Zeigler’s argument. Having forces in the United States and the West - or in the case of the IOC, largely controlled by the United States and the West - telling Russia it can't compete immediately raises a series of thorny questions. Russia's anti-gay laws are abhorrent. You know what else is abhorrent? The drone and mass-spying program run by United States. Also our deeply racist system of mass incarceration, our treatment of women prisoners, our continued degradation of indigenous people, our record-setting immigrant deportation program, or the fact that in 29 states it's still legal to fire people just because of their sexuality. 

The list goes on. This isn't about comparing and contrasting the crimes of East and West. It's about saying that if the only countries allowed in the Olympics had sparkling records on human rights, we'd be watching polar bears race penguins on an ice drift in Antarctica.

The answer in this case lies with what Zeigler dismisses: "asking athletes, coaches and fans to risk disqualification, arrest or worse in Sochi, Russia." Yes it's a lot to ask. It was also a lot to ask of Dennis Brutus when he was shot organizing SANROC. It was a lot to ask John Carlos and Tommie Smith to raise their fists for human rights in 1968. Fighting injustice actually demands having a fight. The IOC won't do it for us. If you stand for LGBT rights, then you need to stand up, pick a side, throw on your rainbow colored gloves, and start fighting. In the end, the story of Sochi will either be the celebration of repression or resistance. The time to organize resistance begins now, with no illusions in the IOC, their corporate sponsors, or the good will of our own government.

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Agree with zarin. And Ziegler seems a like hypocrite Drama queen

Equality for All

Good article. Athletes should not have to suffer because of their birth.

Participants will win out over the dictators and their ilk.

Blowback on the politics of the Olympics

DZ wants to be a collision maker between sports and politics. He wants their battles to be recorded just as much as the box scores in baseball. He doesn't want sports to be compartmentalized from politics. So I was surprised by the following quote: "If we are against making the athletes political pawns..." Having some athletes become political pawns is one of the unintended consequences of DZ's take on sports.(BTW being a pawn is not the worst than can happen to an athlete, think of the Munich Olympics and the Israeli team members that perished.)

DZ advocated moving the All-Star baseball game from Arizona because of the anti-immigration bill that was passed by the state legislature. This is not so far removed from the Russian LGBT situation. Dave doesn"t want a boycott because this would harm the Russian athletes. He's right, but then he wants the individual athletes to protest by waving various items such as gloves,etc. But this would take great courage(especially if worn during the opening ceremonies) and might work to the detriment of the athletes. For me the decision should rest solely with the athlete.

For most fans sports is an escape from politics for DZ it's an entrance to politics.

The way the Olympics has been organized the last few years validates my belief that the USOC should not enter a US city as host. The money can be spent in better ways.

good article

I agree with Zirin here, but Ziegler's stance is more worthy of ridicule than mild disagreement. He wants Russia banned and treated as a pariah. But then what about Saudi Arabia and most of the rest of the Middle East? I can't imagine the crackdown on those countries' LGBT communities is any less brutal. What about Uganda? And that's ignoring this guy's incredibly myopic idea that one human rights cause apparently trumps all others. I'm guessing he won't be advocating treating Israel as a pariah because of its treatment of Palestinians. Or China because of Tibet. Like Zirin says, let's just ban everyone and make it the polar bears against the penguins. There's sports overload anyway. Who needs the freaking Olympics?


Who are we to criticize Russia? We responded to Gorbachev's goodwill and drawdown of the Soviet Union by expanding NATO up to Russia's borders, and we supported the looting of their country through "shock therapy."

Putin is not a good guy, but the United States government dislikes him for the same reason it disliked Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. He brought the oligarchs of his country under his control, and has presided over energy-driven economic growth that has been unprecedented and more broadly shared. Like Chavez he also takes liberties with the democratic process, but has been undeniably popular and repeatedly wins elections by large margins. The human rights violations that have elicited the most condemnation from the West turn out have been directed at the corrupt and powerful, like the head of Yukos.

If gay activists seek to elevate their issue above all others, we need to ask hard questions about their selfishness. Russia isn't putting anyone in concentration camps. The law is more like making this activity X-rated. Just like consensual pornography, many people find what gay men actually do to each other repulsive and disgusting. Gays shouldn't be persecuted and pornography shouldn't be banned, but a lot of people don't want to see either in public.

How many Democrats, up to and including the president, support plutocratic class war yet emphasize gay rights as progressive cover?

How many gays have apologized or taken any responsibility for the plague-level deaths of hemophiliacs and drug users unleashed by their liberation?

Currently Putin is also on Uncle Sam's naughty list for offering asylum to Snowden. Let's be clear. To jump on the anti-Russia bandwagon at this time is to be complicit in the persecution of a political prisoner.

In 2008 the people of California said that gay marriage was Not Okay. Instead of overturning this democratically, gays threw a hissy fit to the Supreme Court despite the Constitution saying nothing at all about homosexuality. Since they turned the Constitution into an elastic postmodern document whose meaning is in the eye of the beholder, it's harder to get upset about explicit violations fundamental rights that American patriots have died for, like the unreasonable searches and seizures that Snowden exposed.

The right of gays to wed shouldn't be seen as more important than rights to healthcare, living wages, a decent education, or a just foreign policy. Politics is about bargaining and compromises, but what has the gay community been prepared to sacrifice? Many Americans voters would probably support more populist economics and less intervention abroad, but also believe in traditional values. If this is how the gay community is going to act, then it's time to reach out to these voters instead by putting gay rights on the negotiating table.

To Alex/Nice Article

Well congrats on appearing to be a libertarian moderate.

western values

Perhaps I missed something because it seems America is now presenting itself as a model for tolerance concerning the LGBT community. I agree with the previous poster that we have no business criticizing Russia for their treatment of homosexuals because our own history leaves little to be desired.

I feel we will enter a "post intolerance" period similar to our "post racial" era that many on the right believe we are in. "oh we elected a black president. looks like racism is over with". A similar argument can me made for gay athletes. "oh look there are gays in the olympics. intolerance must be over too!"

Sports are Politics

"For most fans sports is an escape from politics..."

I'll believe that when most fans stop supporting the military's encroachment into sports, especially the NFL.

The Olympics are an even bigger marriage of sports and politics.

polar bers

hey dave. no polar bears in antarctica. been there.

Zirin Olympics

I believe that the Olympics is controlled by the West as if the West owned the thing called 'sports' I am therfore all for abandonment of the Olympics by the developping world and establishing of new Games not to be called the Olympics which has a Western bias but something else, this Greek fixation in the West is not the world's fixation. Sports is universal and should not be the tool of those who gave us colonialism and racism and slavery and genocide.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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