The numbers are painful to read. Nearly three-quarters, 74 percent, of adult Russians believe homosexuality should not be accepted by society. Just 16 percent take an opposing view -- a drop of four percentage points in six years. These disheartening statistics are reflected by Russia's even-more-disheartening laws, which have escalated beyond not allowing gay couples to marry or adopt, and now criminalize any "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations." The vagueness of the law's terminology allows it to function as a broad ban on any public discussion of LGBT rights.
You're reading about this here because Sochi, a subtropical city on Russia's Black Sea coast, will host next year's Winter Olympics and Olympic athletes, gay and straight. For those weeks, those athletes will have to figure out what response, if any, they will have to the country's repressive laws.
A clear consensus as to what that response will be has yet to emerge. Some have called for protests in the same vein as John Carlos and Tommie Smith's defiant black power salute at the 1968 Olympics. The image of Smith and Carlos on the medal stand silently protesting American racism remains powerful as ever, and a modern day repeat seems as noble a gesture as any. However, that does nothing to change the fact that it would be a gesture -- a palliative moment that might make the like-minded feel inspired, but which would likely do little for the people affected by Russia's legislative and cultural homophobia. One side, of course, needs much more relief than the other.
When we talk about athletes protesting Russia's laws we are talking about outsiders entering a foreign country and telling its people they don't know how to govern themselves. Regardless of how undeniably wrong Russia's policies are, foreign intervention of this sort is rarely well received. Keep in mind that the Obama administration demanded Russia hand over Edward Snowden, one of the most wanted men in the world, and Russia's official response was to grant Snowden asylum. Russia's response to foreign pressure is typically defiance.
How Russia reacts to athlete protests of their unjust laws may seem irrelevant, but if a protest is going to have an impact, how it is executed and received is important. Foreign athletes simply lack the cultural capital with Russia's people that would be necessary to win them over, and the Olympics are a much better platform for track and field than ethical or political debate. It's tough to believe that a country clearly in favor of laws like these will take a handful of well-meaning hurdlers seriously. It's tough to say that they should.
Further complicating matters, as always, is the conveniently and grossly apolitical International Olympic Committee. This is the same IOC that ignored mass arrests of Atlanta's homeless population during the 1996 Olympics and a litany of human rights violations in China meant to suppress opposition to the 2008 Olympics. In each and every instance their stance has remained the same: the Olympics are a celebration of sport, and nothing else.
The IOC's defining policy is a perfectly honest one so long as "celebration of sport" is read as "Dionysian money orgy." The 11 worldwide sponsors of the 2012 Olympics are believed to have paid roughly $100 million for that distinction. NBC's U.S. broadcast contract for the next four Olympics is worth $4.38 billion alone. All that money on the table means that all parties are heavily invested in ensuring the games go off without incident -- or protest. IOC President Jacques Roges has even gone so far as to claim no anti-LGBT discrimination will take place during the games, even as Russian authorities made clear that anti-LGBT laws will not be suspended.
Here's a mildly less depressing truth: social progress is a brutally long war of attrition. That's a fact that can be seen without looking beyond the United States' own borders. Nearly 50 years have passed since Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but inequality entrenched by society is not so easily defeated. The flashpoints we associate with change are simply the most memorable moments of an enduring process.
What Carlos and Smith did at the 1968 Olympics was brave and just by any sane standard, but it was one moment in a movement that dates back to the first abolitionists. Posing what they did as a suitable answer to Russia's homophobia disregards the fact that we're dealing with a different situation. More importantly, it also ignores the activists already in Russia who are doing the hard, thankless work that social progress demands. Those activists are the real key to ending LGBT discrimination in Russia. Helping Russia's LGBT population begins with helping the organizations that represent them, the ones that will still be there long after the Olympics end.
Asking athletes to make a statement is facile, armchair stuff. Asking them to make a statement that works toward a solution is more complex, but also more worthwhile. Following a silver medal performance in the men's 800 meter at the World Track & Field Championships, Nick Symmonds said he would champion the cause for gay rights, as long as it didn't get him arrested.
There is a way Symmonds and the other protest-minded athletes all over the world can do just that: They can help fund the movement.
Ask most anyone who has worked for a progressive organization (I've worked for two over the last four-plus years) and they'll tell you that what their organization needs most is more funding. There is only so much out there, and the organizations working on controversial issues in hostile climates -- say, LGBT rights in Russia -- have it doubly hard. Contrary to popular belief, activists do not subsist on a diet of optimism, and do have bills to pay. If any athletes want to make a sacrifice on behalf of Russia's gay population without risking their Olympic eligibility, the way to do it is by publicly pledging a collectively agreed upon percentage of the sponsorship and prize money they earn in the next year to LGBT rights organizations in Russia, and encouraging the rest of the world to give whatever they can.
Doing so would remove the most dangerous barriers to protest and thus make more athletes more willing to join in. Generally speaking, asking someone to give up some money is easier than asking them to give up their freedom. Beyond that, the statement the athletes would be making functions as a public protest that can't be stopped. Powerful as both Russia and the IOC are, neither can tell the athletes how to use their own money. It's still an imperfect solution, but protests always are. The culture of homophobia in Russia is not one that will go away overnight, regardless of the law. The organizations working to change that culture will need funding to survive. Olympic athletes are in a good position to help them get that funding.
The ideal of the activist-athlete sounds lovely, but ignores how rare that ideal is in reality. Russia already has great activists who will be working toward equality, regardless of whether athletes choose to protest or not. And they're not leaving after the Olympics.
No matter how much you may want to, you can't make an athlete become an activist. Better to let them do what they can.
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Tomas Rios is a freelance NYC-based writer who has covered MMA for The Classical, Deadspin, The Pacific Standard and Slate. You can find him @TheTomasRios.