SA should pull out of Winter Olympics in Russia

Scores of people protest in London against Russia’s new anti-gay law. (Reuters)

Scores of people protest in London against Russia’s new anti-gay law. (Reuters)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has confirmed that it will punish any athletes who protest Russia's new anti-gay laws and Russia's interior ministry had confirmed that spectators and fans will be subject to the same laws.

These laws put a total ban on so-called homosexual propaganda. Such "propaganda" includes inflammatory statements such as "No one chooses to be gay", "Being gay is alright" and "What adults do in their own time is their own business". People may even be arrested in the street if they are overheard saying anything that supports LGBT rights.

Russian officials may respond that the ban is only intended to prevent children from being exposed to such "corrupting influences", and on paper that may be true. But even if we leave aside how thoroughly homophobic that attitude is, this interpretation of the law means that you can only be openly gay if no one under the age of 18 ever notices you.

There has been an upsurge in anti-homosexual violence. A Russian neo-Nazi group has been luring gay men into ambushes, where they are beaten, tortured and sometimes even killed. The group claims that what they are doing is intended to protect children from child molesters. The way that they justify this is by claiming that all gay men are paedophiles who need to be killed. The group works in the open, even in public places. They upload videos of their exploits on to social networking sites. Russian police have so far done nothing to stop them.

That the IOC, whose own charter pledges it to "act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic movement", is bowing to pressure from Russian officials is a further illustration that the organisation has lost all moral authority and is ­unworthy of being the protectors of the Olympic spirit.

I shall be boycotting these 2014 Olympics.

One may wonder why I, as an openly straight man, am so incensed by this issue. I boycotted the Beijing Olympics, but that was because of the country's human rights violations, and I am certainly a human. Why am I so wound up about LGBT rights? The answer is simple: it's because I am a South African.

Physically disabled
Our country was reborn as an inclusive state dedicated to the ideal that the rights of all people should be respected. Often we forget this, but it plays out constantly through the simplest of things. I shall take the physically disabled as one example.

Many of us have had the pleasure of being served at a supermarket by a cashier in a wheelchair. I am certain that many of us have been at restaurants where the staff has shuffled a few tables around to make room for a wheelchair to come in. I am a member of a gym where several physically disabled people are welcome to train.

For me, the best part about these experiences is that no one makes a big deal about making allowances for others. If we were to overhear someone saying that the wheelchair-bound should be barred from restaurants, we would look at them as if they'd gone mad. But what we may not realise is that in some countries this cavalier attitude to the rights of others is the reality. In many countries, access ramps and disabled toilets are not required by law.

Don't get me wrong, there is always room for improvement, and you can bet that disabled people in impoverished communities place access to restaurants low on their list of priorities. But no one would say that people with physical disabilities should have fewer rights than other people.

Homosexuality is no different. We've had gay marriage for so long in this country that I was shocked when I learnt that France has only recently legalised it. To South African liberals like myself, that type of bigotry seems almost weird.

While no one was watching we became an inclusive country, or at least a country that strives to hold itself to the ideal of inclusivity.

So for me, seeing a country as powerful as Russia regressing in the way that it has is deeply disturbing. So I am going to boycott these Winter Olympics in every way I can. I shall not watch a single event, I shall not buy any product branded with the Olympic logo and I shall take every opportunity to encourage others to do the same.

Perhaps there is even more that we can do. People are already talking about consumer boycotts of Stolichnaya vodka. But this seems a tad unfair given that Stoli has ­publicly condemned the actions of the Russian government. However, the question must be asked whether Stoli would have felt the need to ­condemn Russia's new homo­phobia if they had not seen the boycott looming …

But personal boycotts only go so far and there is something that we can do that would be far more ­powerful - we could organise a boycott of the Olympics by our country. We could pull our team out of the event and refuse to take part.

It is all very well for Barack Obama and David Cameron to say that they cannot pull their teams out because having gay athletes attend and win medals sends a far more powerful message. I would love to be able to ask these men how anyone will know that an athlete is gay in a country where they can be arrested for mentioning it.

Every country should boycott these Olympics, and South Africa should lead the way.

Andrew Verrijdt is a psychologist and writer



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