The Bolshoy Ice Dome Arena, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics hockey tournament in Sochi, Russia. (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Inside or outside the hockey world, there’s nothing wrong with taking a stand for what you believe in. Most of the time it’s quite admirable. However, even the most well-intentioned of people can sometimes employ tactics unlikely to help them achieve their goal.
That’s how I feel about recent calls for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. The host country is being rightfully lambasted for its abhorrent anti-gay laws and more than a few people (including actors Stephen Fry and Mia Farrow and musician Billy Bragg) want as many countries as possible to register their disgust by pulling their athletes out of the Games. (Naturally, this would include NHL players currently gearing up to play.)
Regular readers of my work know I’m as fervent a supporter of equal rights as anybody. But all it takes is a simple scan back through history to recognize the only people who would be affected by an Olympic boycott are the athletes themselves.
Thirty-seven years ago, 25 African nations boycotted the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal as a protest over the inclusion of New Zealand, which had indirectly shown support for the South African apartheid regime by playing in a rugby tournament earlier that year. Four years later, the United States boycotted the Summer Games in Moscow due to the then-still-intact Soviet Union’s war in Afghanistan. And four years after that, the USSR chose not to participate in the Los Angeles Summer Games, citing “anti-Soviet hysteria.”
In all three of those cases, the boycotts had virtually no effect. Apartheid remained an official policy in South Africa until 1994. The Soviet empire lasted five more years after the L.A. Games and crumbled because of socio-economic conditions. Are we really supposed to expect a boycott of Sochi will be any different?
Besides, it’s easy for people like Fry (whom I respect as an actor, author and thinker) to suggest athletes stay home. He’s never been one. If Fry had trained his entire life to prepare for an important stage or screen role, only to have someone unconnected to his profession demand he step away, would he accept the order with open arms? Moreover, why isn’t Fry doing everything he can to ensure Russians can’t read or watch any of his work until their homeland drags itself into the 21st century? Why are athletes the only ones being asked to sacrifice here?
The fact is, the absence of thousands of the world’s best athletes would only help Russia by clearing out the competitive field and thus making it easier for the host country to win more medals. In some ways, that’s a reward for their homophobic philosophy. But if you allow NHLers and other athletes who’ve supported pro-gay causes (including the You Can Play Project) to take part in the Games, you demonstrate to the world the value of inclusion and empathy in all facets of life. In addition, gay-friendly athletes can serve as high-value role models for Russian gays and lesbians, most of who have no choice but to live their lives in the shadows and rarely get to see their peers succeed.
Olympic athletes aren’t the architects of Russia’s draconian anti-gay laws. Most train throughout their youth in total anonymity and without any kind of significant financial payday. All they live for is competing against the best the planet has to offer. Many won’t ever get another chance at this level after this coming year. They’ve done nothing to cast themselves as our collective conscience and shouldn’t be asked to play that part.
We can still be vocal in our support of powerless members of society and rail against their persecutors. But the notion that the sports world has to be the frontline for cultural warfare is naïve and ignorant of the sweat and tears athletes put into their profession. And taking away their lifeblood – the competitive stage – will do far more harm than good.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.