Will You Boycott the Russian Olympics?

Boycotting sponsors is as Capitalist an act as any. It’s about consumers voting with their feet and pocketbooks.

It’s not about free speech even if the plan is to boycott sponsors of some offensive radio talker. It’s about not paying to have them spew their vitriol because corporations are buying their ability to do it in the media.

Crying interference with freedom of speech is a laugh. Sponsored speech isn’t free; it’s bought and paid for, it’s about providing their speech with a microphone.

But boycotts have to be carefully thought out if they’re going to do any good, even symbolically. They have to target what really matters to their target: its income stream.

It’s hardly possible today to boycott a nation by refusing to buy an internationally distributed product identified with it. International corporations have little loyalty to any country they’re in beyond making money off of them.

Coors and Miller are owned by a South African company, Budweiser by a Belgian/Brazilian company, and Stoli Vodka by a Latvian company that’s currently fighting with the Russian government.

So when columnist Dan Savage called for a boycott of Stoli in response to anti-LGBT legislation passed in Russia in June, it seemed like a good idea, but turned out to be controversial. Something clearly had to be done, because the new Russian law against “gay propaganda” was only the latest in Russian anti-LGBT brutality that marked violence toward and prohibition of Gay Pride demonstrations as well as a proliferation of right-wing torturing of LGBT people.

This coming February we are supposed to appreciate the Winter Olympics in Sochi as if Russia deserved to get worldwide accolades for hosting an event that claims to celebrate worldwide togetherness, inclusion, and acceptance. Yet on June 30th Russian President, Vladimir Putin signed the anti-gay law, reflecting not only his usual arrogance toward world opinion, but his need to pander for votes to those outside the major cities and for money from his wealthy elite backers to bolster his chances in the next election.

In 2010, the European Court of Human Rights had already ruled that Russia violated the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms when Russia prevented gay pride parades in Moscow in 2007, 2008, and 2009. But the anti-gay crackdown continued, and in May 2013 authorities in Moscow refused to allow a pride parade because, according to an official, it’s imperative to, “work clearly and consistently on maintaining morality, oriented toward the teaching of patriotism in the growing generation, and not toward incomprehensible aspirations.”

And if Republicans in the US could get the religious right-wing to vote against their own economic interests by playing the fear-the-gay card to protect children, why not Putin? After all, he needed the Russian Orthodox Church on his side as well as the rural vote to solidify his political future.

The anti-gay “propaganda” legislation, after all, had begun out in the provinces in 2006 with similar local laws. In that year the Ryazan region banned “propaganda of homosexuality among minors,” making “promoting homosexuality among juveniles” punishable by fines of up to 20000 rubles ($608).

As if that weren’t enough, in July Putin eagerly signed a law banning the adoption of Russian children by same-sex married couples and single people who live in countries where same-sex marriage is legal. At the end of the month the Chairman of the St. Petersburg legislature’s committee for legislation and the author of that city’s anti- propaganda bill said the laws will be applied to foreign athletes and visitors during the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

But who is responsible, and who should be boycotted if something effective is to be accomplished? Well, according to the Director of Global Initiatives of Human Rights Watch in an interview with Michelangelo Signorile: “The International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, the so-called top corporate sponsors — Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Procter & Gamble — these companies all, as [HRW] did, tracked the progress of this law.”

“If any of the Olympic stakeholders, the sponsors who are literally paying for the Games, or the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee or the other Olympic committees, if they weighed in on this, I don’t think this law would have been signed by Putin or passed by the Duma. If they had leaned on [Russia] before the law was signed, it would not have been signed. That is absolutely true.”

Individual athletes are courageously standing up daily to protest, but LGBT institutions and their supporters who distribute, sell and use sponsors’ products can do it most effectively. How about refusing to buy from Coca Cola until this is settled? What about all the gay bars refusing?

What about emailing McDonald’s, Procter and Gamble, and NBC Universal. That would be protesting that really matters — targeting the real sponsors of the events.

And the International Olympic Committee and US Olympic Committee could end this at any time.

In July, the IOC responded: “The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. The Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes. We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardize this principle.”

If it were committed to international human rights, the IOC could ban Russia from its own Olympics. And the US Olympic Committee could put heavy pressure on Russia as they have in other cases.

But on top of boycotting those sponsors who are paying for this showcase in Russia, any of us can write both Committees telling them not only that we will not attend, but will refuse to watch unless an open and proud LGBT athlete is in the event. It’s the least we can do if we think it matters. It’s the least we can do to support our sisters and brothers who are suffering in Russia today.