Athletes should 'use podium to protest at Putin's olympics'

In a candid reply to gay UK celebrity Stephen Fry on Twitter this week, Prime Minister David Cameron declared that Britain would not be boycotting the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games. This clarification followed the deep concern which has been shown about Russia’s new anti-gay legislation, and the actions of vigilantes who have been openly persecuting LGBT Russians. Concerns which led Fry to describe Putin’s legislation as “barbaric, fascist law” and compare the hosting of these games to the summer Olympics held in 1936 Nazi Germany.

As popular history tells us though, the 1936 Olympics did not verify Adolf Hitler’s racist world model, just as the 2014 Winter Olympics may not confirm Putin’s. An athlete involved in the games undermined Hitler’s notion of Aryan racial superiority and left one of the deepest sporting imprints upon our political history, winning four gold medals and becoming a shining example of the equality of all races.

Perhaps it is accurate to surmise that an LGBT figure will unlikely emerge in the same way as Jesse Owens in 1936 during the Winter Games of 2014, mainly due to the consummate feats of the American athlete, and the wider interest sustained by the summer Olympics. But, Jesse Owens’ legacy itself could provide the opportunity for comparable feats to be paralleled and amplified, spurring pressure for gay rights within Russia.

Victories by LGBT athletes would allow Western leaders and the opponents of Putin’s oppressive measures to hold these athletes aloft as beacons of equality in the memory of Owens. This would then provide a deep and direct comparison in the historical consciousness of the Western world between Putin and Hitler, between Nazism and Russia’s anti-gay philosophy. Surely such an association would at least shake the foundations of Putin’s presidency. Indeed, for a man so self-indulged it is difficult to imagine that he would want to be written into the history books as Hitler Mark 2.

However, these wounding comparisons rely upon the success of LGBT athletes, success which obviously cannot be guaranteed in a fiercely competitive sporting event such as the Winter Olympics. As eluded to by Stephen Fry however, there are other ways which athletes can oppose Putin’s legislation and enliven our historical consciousness.

Fry called for a show of solidarity from athletes as they competed, against Putin’s measures, either through their routines or on the podium. If athletes engaged in the latter, through the cross-armed gesture which Fry suggested, then this would stimulate memories of a similar occasion in Olympic history- the 1968 Black Power salute. An iconic moment in Olympic history, Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised one arm aloft as they made a stand for black civil rights after they had received gold and bronze medals respectively in the 200m final. Similar to Sochi, prior to the games all black athletes were encouraged to boycott, but instead chose to compete, and made a political statement which became one of the most significant in the history of the black civil rights movement.

It is hoped that a similar show of solidarity by athletes, whether LGBT or not, will rekindle our historical consciousness of the Black Power salute, and bring to light the strife for equality which continues today against forces such as Putin’s Russia. In this sense, we are hoping for more athletes like Peter Norman, who stood alongside Smith and Carlos in Mexico City and wore an OPHR (Olympic Project for Human Rights) band in support of the American athletes. If such pressure can be applied by athletes again, then Putin will know that the force of the international community is against him.

Western leaders have in recent days maintained that the most effective way to oppose Putin’s hateful anti-gay philosophy is through their continued participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics. We have many memories stored in our historical consciousness which express long-fought battles for equality, a defining few of which have manifested through Olympic events. To destabilise Putin’s anti-gay efforts we need to draw comparisons between Western history and the present day, demonstrating that heroes of equality exist today in the image of past icons such as Owens, Smith, Carlos and Norman, and that there are those who still stand in the way of equality, whose actions aren’t harmonious with the modern world.

*Sam Bright is Editor at online journal Backbench.