Why I am Boycotting the 2014 Winter Olympics

[TW: Homophobia, violence, rape] 

I’m not a particularly big fan of most sports. It’s not so much that I dislike them as that I’m indifferent to them. I live in San Antonio, Texas, and Spurs fever is pretty big around here. People are always perplexed when I have no idea that there was a Spurs game, let alone that they lost the championship.

But one of the few sporting events I do get excited to watch is the Olympics. Every couple of years, the summer or winter games brings to my attention interesting and different sports than your regular, run-of-the-mill American sporting events. I love the international focus of the Olympics, moving from city to city, especially when the coverage goes into some detail about the lives and history of the people of the host city and country.

So it is particularly frustrating that I’m not going to be watching or paying attention to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. You see, like previous Olympic games, there are a number of human rights abuses associated not only with the games in Sochi, but also with the Russian government.

About a month ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law that bans “gay propaganda” (at the same time, and in response to the activism of the feminist punk rock group Pussy Riot, he signed a bill that criminalizes insulting religion, with jail time and fines as punishment). At the time of the law’s passage, many LGBT activists and critics of the law voiced concern that it would lead to an increase in homophobic hate crimes.

They were right.

A few days ago, it was reported that Neo-Nazi Russian nationalists have been using a popular social networking site to lure LGBT teens (particularly gay male teens) into traps and then torture them. Of course, the teens have no protection because of the law recently signed by Putin, so these fucking assholes are making videos of the attacks and posting them online. In the video at that link [warning: it is a graphic video], a teen from Moscow who was lured through the social media site is bullied, tortured, and doused with urine in public and in broad daylight. These are not attacks that are happening in alleyways at night.

The Russian government has also arrested and detained gay-rights activists, including four Dutch activists who were attending a human rights seminar at a summer camp. One lawmaker has called for the public flogging of gay people, as well as their “re-education.”

There is a very real and present danger for queer people in Russia. The government is actively persecuting queer people (and their allies) and creating an environment in which it is apparently acceptable to torture teenagers. Who knows what else is going on that’s not being reported. Further, LGBT folks are not the only marginalized people who are being abused and attacked. There is widespread abuse of migrant workers at Olympic construction sites. Some of the construction workers in Sochi have been brutally beaten by police, including one who was also raped with a crowbar.

There has been mounting pressure by LGBT groups to boycott the Russian Olympics. The International Olympic Committee recently released a statement ensuring the safety of queer athletes at the games (something that seems like they should be doing anyway, regardless of where the games are being held). But this is so missing the point.

While a bunch of people are playing around on ice and snow, people are being tortured and probably killed in a country which will be receiving billions of dollars in income from the games. The words of the IOC may be supportive of human rights, but their actions are not.

Figure skater Johnny Weir, whom I usually adore, wrote a blog post asking people not to boycott the Olympics. His argument is that it would harm the athletes and families of the athletes who come from poor backgrounds who have to struggle to send their family members to compete in the games. I sympathize with those families and how hard they work. The thing is, I’m not sure that it’s fair to put their financial and economic struggles ahead of the lives of people in Russia. Weir is saying that since people had to work extra jobs or give up vacations, we should look past the human rights abuses going on in the host countries by continuing to support the country by sending our athletes to compete. Sorry, but no.

It’s time for the IOC to stop allowing the games to be hosted in countries that support and encourage rampant and ongoing human rights abuses. And until they do, I am not going to be supporting any more Olympic games. I hope you will also consider voicing your support of LGBT and other marginalized Russians who are being abused and tortured by boycotting the games. You might also consider boycotting Russian products, such as Russian vodka, because it seems that sometimes the only thing some people understand is when you fuck with their money. So the more of us that refuse to give financial support to Russia, the more pressure will build. And, with any luck, perhaps the UN and other LGBT-friendly governments will join in and pressure Russia to repeal this horrendous law and stop the rampant human rights abuses.

Sadly, the cynic in me realizes that nothing will probably come of this call for a boycott of the games. I really cannot see the US boycotting the games (though it’s not unprecedented), especially considering that Comcast has spent over $4 billion to have exclusive American broadcasting rights for the Olympics. But the idealist in me cannot help making a pledge to excuse myself from participation and from encouraging others to do the same.

I hope you will join in and encourage others to do the same, too.

Featured image from The Disorder of Things, which has an excellent post regarding the politics of Russian anti-gay laws.


Will is the admin of Queereka, part of the Skepchick network. They are a cultural/medical anthropologist who works at the intersections of sex/gender, sexuality, health, and education. Their other interests include politics, science studies, popular culture, and public perceptions and understandings of anthropology. Follow them on Twitter at @anthrowill and Facebook at

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  1. In that case, you might consider also boycotting the next summer Olympics here in Rio. There have been a number of abuses documented as the city gets ready to host the event, mainly related to kicking (poor) people out of their homes with no compensation or even adequate time to leave and police violence in the poorer regions of the city (right now, the biggest symbol of that is the disappearance of Amarildo, a construction worker who lives in the Rocinha favela and was taken by the “pacifying” police on July 14 and not heard from since). I’m a bit ambivalent about calls to boycott the Summer Olympics because I honestly do not know which would hurt us (and especially the poorest among us) more. However, I believe in being a responsible consumer and I absolutely support someone’s decision to boycott an event because of human rights abuses, which is why I feel I ought to inform you of the ones going on here.

  2. Great. Now they’ll probably cancel the games. No curling for anyone. Thanks a lot, Will!

    (Wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where that was the result of a battle between Will and The IOC/Comcast?)

  3. Boycotting it as an athlete invited to the games could be a powerful statement. Not watching it on TV seems almost homeopathic in it’s effect. The Networks themselves have caused numerous inadvertent mass “boycotts” just through shitty coverage. I think drawing attention to the human rights issues could probably be done much more effectively if it was aimed at people who are watching the coverage.

    1. One person or even a ten thousand people boycotting the games would be ineffectual, BUT as the U.S. is starting to understand that LGBTQ people are people (shit, who knew?) with more than a fifth of states recognizing marriage equality, maybe there can be millions. I’ll be boycotting, because maybe I can help make millions. I don’t expect it will work that way, but you’d better bet I’m gonna try. Maybe I can. Maybe I can be one of millions.

      And the worst case scenario? I don’t provide direct nor indirect support to those monsters.

  4. I can’t see the Olympics as a viable target. The athletes are not going to boycott and if they did they would simply be replaced. Boycotting the sponsors is not going to hurt Russia. I don’t think there will be enough supporters of a boycott to make it effective. And the olympics are a one shot deal: We will still need to think up some target for post Jan 2014.

    Boycotting the olympics would be setting up a test of strength that we are certain to lose. That seems like bad strategy to me.

    Threatening a boycott during the city selection process would have been a viable move. Threatening seven months before the event is tilting at windmills.

    I supported the sports boycott agains South Africa because it was very effective. The South African White community saw themselves as an unacknowledged, misunderstood part of the West. When ordinary people from the West started demonstrating against them, it got noticed. A sports boycott against Russia is the wrong tool. They don’t see themselves in the same terms, they don’t look for Western endorsement of their society.

    The Russian Vodka boycott seems like a much better prospect. Even though there is a potential problem there with the owners of Stolli being anti-Putin and pro gay rights.

    Boycotting Russia is going to be hard because after raw materials from the extractive industries (gas, ores etc) the next biggest Russian export is Internet bank fraud.

    1. OMG, you know what? You’re totally right. Nevermind! Back to regularly scheduled program, where we watch and enjoy the Olympics and Russian products as if there’s nothing going on!


      Boycotting the olympics would be setting up a test of strength that we are certain to lose. That seems like bad strategy to me.

      A test of strength? What the fuck are you talking about? And why is it a “bad strategy” to not support companies, events, and countries that are actively persecuting and torturing (and probably murdering) entire segments of the population?

      You must realize that this is not just about a strategy to put pressure on the Russian government. It is also about not lending support through engagement with those companies and products. If you don’t care and want to continue lending your support because “strategy,” that’s your issue.

    2. Don’t forget the sponsors. Boycotting the Olympic sponsors ( – and I’m sure there are others), and letting them know why we’re doing it could inspire them to pull funding, or at least threaten to pull funding. This, in turn, would have a much greater influence on the IOC than angry letters from random individuals could ever have.

      As for the timeline, it’s all well and good to ask what if, but these recent laws are just that – recent. Even if we could go back in time, who on Earth would listen to someone saying that the 2014 Games shouldn’t be held in Sochi because in 2013 Vladimir Putin will pass draconian anti human-rights and anti-free speech laws?

      Tilting at windmills? I’m pretty sure that most of the Vancouver venues are still standing. (True, it would be a scramble to get an Olympic Village set up, since my understanding is that the original one has been converted to condos, but it’s not impossible.) And it wouldn’t surprise me if Torino, Salt Lake City, and even some earlier host cities are similarly viable.

  5. I prefer to play sports over watching them anyway. But yeah, I’d say the thing to do is boycott Russia to put pressure on the government. It worked with South Africa in the 80s.

    Also, a law saying you can’t mock religion? Tut-tut, not a very good communist, Vladimir.

  6. Pressuring the athletes to speak out about the issue during the games would likely be far more effective, and would be something I’d want to see.

  7. I shall join this boycott. Not because I think it will be particularly effective, but my principles do not allow for the support of known bigots. I also plan to contact my local and national station carrying the games to let them know exactly what I am doing and why.

  8. I will definitely NOT be watching the Winter Olympics. The Russian anti-gay laws are a gross violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the Russian government is a signatory. I will participate in the boycott.

  9. I am sad and physically sickened that the same culture that produced Irina Ratushinskaya, Anton Chekhov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Vladimir Mayakovsky also produced this viciously insane Putin and his supporters. I have met and gotten to know more Russian people than I can count. Some have been a bit right-wing and some have been a bit nutty, but none so hateful as the ones running amok now. Mostly they have proven kind, more-or-less sane and intelligent. These recent events are shocking beyond belief.

    Yes, boycott the sponsors (Thank you Margaret Salisbury for the link!).

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