sochi olympics 

Much fanfare has been made in recent weeks over Russia’s dubious legislation banning the dissemination of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. A palpable outcry reverberated amongst the LGBT community, calling the law an infringement of basic constitutional and human rights aimed at encouraging homophobia.

Rumours fluttered of a possible opt out by various countries in retaliation to what much of the West perceives as draconian measures, unbefitting a self-proclaimed democracy. This would not be the first time that a stand was taken. The 1980 Olympics in Moscow were famously tainted by the U.S.-led boycott over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, with the support of 62 countries. History did not repeat itself however; instead, the leaders of Germany, Britain, France, and the United States individually chose not to attend the opening ceremony. The move was criticised by Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as an “ostentatious gesture” aimed at producing headlines while costing nothing.

The cost was indeed small but then, so was the outcome. The 2014 Olympics opened in Sochi as planned without any major dramas, and though President Putin cut a somewhat solitary figure without the familiar faces of Barack Obama and David Cameron standing beside him, the opening achieved its aim of debuting modern Russia as a culturally rich, ethnically diverse and self-determining superpower.    

The gentle hand of diplomacy saved the day for what could otherwise have been a rather embarrassing and financially unrewarding affair. But what are some of the reasons behind this decision? And the true cost of compliance?

To begin, despite the familiar notion that through technology we now inhabit a tightly clustered ‘global village’ allowing for increased awareness of world issues, this interconnectedness does not dissolve borders. Nation-states remain sovereign creatures with a fluctuating level of cooperation. This means that in the absence of a world hegemon to police them, there is not a lot the international community can do when disagreements arise. One possibility is to apply pressure through various economic and political means, such as fines and trade embargos.

 In 2010 the European Court of Human Rights fined Russia for banning gay parades in Moscow ordering the payment of 29,510 euros to Nikolai Alexeyev, a leading activist at the time, for repeatedly ignoring his requests to organise marches. Though this was hailed as a significant victory at the time, we can now see that it had very little effect on subsequent law restrictions concerning Russia’s gay minority.                                                                                                             

Much has also been said of the need to keep the Olympics neutral rather than use them as a medium to launch political agendas. The fact that all the athletes competing have worked hard to achieve their dream of participating and to deny them this chance is to rob them of a lifetime goal, has been a key factor in anti-boycott arguments.

A less obvious though pertinent reason has been the alleged support of the Russian people towards the anti-gay propaganda law. According to a survey conducted in June 2013 by the All-Russian Centre for the Study of Public Opinion, 88 percent of respondents were in favour of the law while 54 percent believed that homosexuality should be criminalised.

Though statistics are not always the most reliable indicator of the truth, in this case the numbers may be considerably justified. Outwardly, Russian society may seem contemporary and Westernised, but when it comes to core values and practical mentality, the majority remain orthodox and very traditionalist in their outlook. This does not imply of course that the majority are also homophobic, but it does suggest that legislative action seeking to limit the outward expression of non-standard sexual preferences, will likely be approved or met with little resistance. Perhaps that is why before the anti-propaganda bill came into force, similar laws were able to be passed in 11 other Russian regions and St. Petersburg.  

Maybe the world has grown weary of conflict or maybe the plight of LGBT people is just not the right issue to start a war over. One thing is certain though, an opportunity to make history has passed. Boycotts are never really about change, they are charged acts of defiance with a message that something matters supremely. No such message has been sent this time, leaving Russia perhaps more emboldened than ever to act as it pleases in the future.