There was no John Carlos moment, but Canada's participation in the Olympics was more likely to shift Russia's anti-gay stance than staying home
The 2014 Winter Olympics have come and gone, and besides a brief protest by punk collective Pussy Riot and a few isolated shows of rainbow solidarity, the highly-anticipated acts of civil disobedience by athletes and fans against Russia’s anti-gay laws never materialized.
Instead of staging overt demonstrations or an outright boycott, Canada’s athletes joined thousands of other Olympians from almost 90 countries and competed in Sochi. Many had earlier voiced disapproval of Russia’s laws, but should they have gone further and stayed away from the Games?
I think not.
When it comes to events like the Olympics, I prefer engagement over boycotts – although I can’t say my thinking on the subject was that sophisticated back in 1980.
I was 20, and as a newly minted member of the Canadian men’s field hockey team, was focused on a dream of representing Canada at the Summer Games in Moscow.
When we were told that our country, along with other Western nations, was boycotting the Games and that there’d be no chance at Olympic qualification for us, my 20-year-old self was too choked at seeing my slim Olympic hopes disappear to think much about Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan – or whether a boycott of a sporting event was an effective way to make a political point.
Russian tanks rolling into the Afghan desert seemed very remote when my reality was living and training on the UBC campus in Vancouver.
This was the pre-digital era, when you relied on network TV and newspapers for your updates. Like many serious athletes, my teammates and I were focused mainly on our sport: training twice a day, fighting for a spot in the starting 11, playing hard, hoping to qualify for the big tournaments. These victories and defeats were what passed for struggles in our world.
Sad to say, most of the guys weren’t too aware of the life-or-death struggles taking place on the other side of the globe.
I wish I could say different. And that I’d thought more about the wider implications of the boycott and about what was happening in Afghanistan – but the truth is I didn’t, not until later.
Did Canada and the other boycotting nations do the right thing in 1980?
You could ask the same of the African nations that boycotted the 1976 Games to protest apartheid, and the Eastern Bloc countries that stayed away from the 1984 Games.
While I think a boycott might – might – be justified by the attention it draws to an international geopolitical situation (e.g., an invasion), in the case of this year’s controversy surrounding Russia’s anti-gay law, I believe our athletes took the best course by going to the Sochi Games.
Participation, dialogue and engagement are more likely to shift Russia’s unconscionable anti-gay stance than staying away ever would have. Putin & Co.’s official response has been stony silence and stilted propaganda, but you can bet that ordinary people from Volgograd to Vladivostok are talking about sexual orientation more than ever before. And ultimately, this attention is bound to help the millions of Russians discriminated against by their own government.
And remember: without participation, the world would never have witnessed the extraordinary triumphs of Jesse Owens in 1936 or the stunning silent protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City – and the social dialogue generated by these athletes’ actions.
Oh, and by the way, Canada did compete in the 1984 L.A. Olympics, but by then I’d left the field hockey program. The band I’d co-founded and played with since high school had decided to make a go of it.
So by the summer of 84, I was on a never-ending tour of northern BC and the Prairies and had to watch my former teammates play on a grainy TV mounted behind the bar of the Silver Spur Cabaret in Fort St. John, BC.
For about a week, I wrestled with a late-night case of the what-ifs… until Canada got knocked out. Then it was back to the challenge at hand: convincing the rig workers coming in off the deck at Tumbler Ridge that our originals were as good as anything off ZZ Top’s Eliminator.
The road not taken….