Fly the Rainbow Flag in Sochi

Protests and participation, not a boycott, are the best way to shame Russia for its anti-gay law.

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Russia’s sports minister this week confirmed that the virulently anti-gay law his nation passed earlier this year will, in fact, be enforced during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. "An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn't banned from coming to Sochi," he said. "But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable." Foreigners found guilty of breaking the law face fines of up to $3,000, 15 days of jail time and deportation.

The International Olympic Committee has managed to bumble and fumble its way through responding to Russia’s intentions, simply declaring that it has received assurances from Russia that the law won’t affect athletes or spectators. This has, inevitably, led to calls that the United States should consider boycotting the games, including from actor Harvey Fierstein and liberal blogger Duncan Black.

[See editorial cartoons on gay marriage.]

But color me skeptical that a boycott would do any good. What, exactly, did the dueling Cold War boycotts of the 1980 and 1984 Olympics, skipped by the United States and the U.S.S.R., respectively, achieve? Would skipping the 1936 Olympics, rather than having Jesse Owens run circles around the Germans in Berlin, have done anything to harm the Nazi regime?

John Carlos – who by raising a black-gloved fist on the medal stand at the 1968 Olympics became one of the people responsible for perhaps the most iconic sports protest of all time – had this to say about a potential boycott:

"The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you," he said. "If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don't let your message be buried and don't bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott. Had we stayed home, we'd never have been heard from again."

Or, as Business Insider’s Josh Barro put it, “Olympic boycotts don't work. Flooding Sochi with gays, making it the gayest Olympics ever, would draw more attention to Russian malfeasance.”

Indeed, what was more effective, Carlos’ raised fist or the memory that the U.S. wasn’t at the 1980 Olympics at all? Imagine the media frenzy that would ensue from some medalist flying a rainbow flag on the medal stand. Are cronies of Russian president Vladimir Putin really going to march into the Olympic stadium and arrest someone on national television? No, of course not. Meanwhile, boycotts only hurt athletes who had no control over the location of the games and have just a few shots at plying their trade on a global stage.

At this point, aside from protesters, the entity in the best position to pressure Russia is, unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee. So far, the committee, which organizes and governs the games, has only released mealy-mouthed statements about inclusion without saying how it would respond to actual enforcement of the Russian law. And that needs to change.

A Senate resolution that Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., plans to introduce calling on the IOC “both to oppose the law itself and to receive a guarantee that athletes and spectators will not be discriminated against on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity at the Sochi Winter Olympic” is in the right spirit. But going even further than that, perhaps a promise that Russia will never play host again if the law is enforced? That would constitute a real response, even if there’s not much hope that the ultra-corrupt IOC would ever take such a step.

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