Evgeny Lebedev

A winter Games to bring Russia in from the cold

The Evening Standard Friday 31 January 2014

Boycotting Sochi 2014 over Russia’s anti-gay laws is not the answer. The Olympics can change attitudes.

There is nothing like sport to throw up historical coincidence. The last time the Olympic circus rolled into Mother Russia, much of the world was conspicuous by its absence. It was 1980 and the Soviet Union had just invaded Afghanistan. America expressed its disgust by staying away and instructing its allies to do the same.

Thirty-four years later, as the Winter Olympics are about to start in the little Black Sea town of Sochi, many are the calls on nations and athletes to boycott. Thankfully, they’re not going to. On this occasion, America’s skaters, skiers and snowboarders will pass their soldiers in mid-air over the Atlantic as they evacuate Afghanistan at the end of a protracted invasion of their own.

The decision to compete is the right one. The matter at hand this time is not an invasion of another sovereign nation but rather an assault on the freedom and dignity of Russia’s own people. When the world goes to Sochi it will show that there is a better, more tolerant way than to isolate a country over the reactionary nature of a government policy.

President Putin has already proved himself intensely frustrated by how much attention the ban on “gay propaganda” is getting in the way of the run-up to this $50 billion showpiece. Sadly, for someone like myself, who cares about the world image of their country of birth, his and other Russian officials’ attempts to defend anti-homosexuality legislation have only provoked fresh embarrassment.

It is not a ban on homosexuality, he has stressed, but a ban on promoting homosexuality to under-18s. Gay people therefore “can feel relaxed and calm in Russia”, he claimed, though he added “But leave children alone please”, thereby idly conflating homosexuality with paedophilia. To make matters worse, the mayor of Sochi then claimed there are no gay people in the town — an absurd line quickly rubbished by more than one gay resident.

Often there are calls for politics to be kept out of sport but it is an entirely impossible wish, and a misguided one, too. Whenever something captures the world’s attention, it is a magnet for anyone with a point to make, and rightly so. Sport’s political moments are among the most magical in its history: two black gloves raised aloft in the black Mexico night; Nelson Mandela in a Springbok jersey, handing the Rugby World Cup to his country’s white Afrikaner captain.

But these are moments made when people engage with injustice, not turn away from it. In the world of international politics and sport, very rarely is it the right course of action simply to stay away (the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa was a special case, since that was as much a protest against apartheid in sports teams as in the nation).

The town of Sochi is itself yet another example of how Russia is so regularly misunderstood. For much of the world, it now suddenly conjures images of ice and snow. The only ice I or anyone else who grew up in the Soviet Union associated with the place would have been vanilla flavoured: Sochi and the Crimea was where every Soviet family wanted to be able to take their family on summer holiday.

Likewise, I feel there is a misunderstanding in London and elsewhere, a false imagining of a great homophobic groundswell on the streets in Russia. This is not the case. Every country has its idiots — Britain, too. Russia’s are no more worth listening to than anyone else’s. The new laws have increased homophobic attacks in Russia’s less cosmopolitan corners, which are many, and there has been no shortage of suicides attributed to them, but Russia is not a lost cause. You only have to look at the reaction to Elton John when he visited Moscow last December for a concert. He was greeted with adulation despite his public opposition to the anti-homosexuality legislation.

The Olympics has a proud history of changing attitudes and laws. In Beijing, China changed several of its human rights laws following pressure from the International Olympic Committee. In London, a huge amount of pressure was put on the Saudi Arabian government to allow women to compete, to which it eventually succumbed.

Many heads of state have indicated they will not attend Sochi, but that should not be seen as political gesture-making. David Cameron would have been the first British Prime Minister in decades to attend a Winter Olympics, had he gone. It is wrong to think the Brits are snubbing the event: we are sending Princess Anne.

Meanwhile, America, quite ingeniously, has included Billie Jean King, the gay tennis legend, in its official delegation. That is the right approach to take: one of engagement and education, not snubbing. There could be no greater antidote to the hateful propaganda of the extremists than someone with the poise, skill and erudition of Ms King.

In the build-up to the Games I have been particularly intrigued by the BBC’s rather ingenious trailer, where Charles Dance reads a specially written poem in which he is the voice of nature, daring the athletes to conquer him. Arguably the most exciting aspect of winter sports is that the winners must conquer not just each other but the might of nature.

There is a symmetry here, too. What is homophobia really but a failure to conquer nature? Only humans have really shown themselves capable of rising above the way of beasts, to use their better instincts of reason. Often it attempts to disguise itself as moral virtue but homophobia lives on only in caveman brains that cannot conquer their primeval instincts.

So here’s hoping that a Winter Olympics in a seaside town might just bring Mother Russia in from the cold.