- By Prachi VidwansPrachi Vidwans is the assistant editor at Democracy Lab. She holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from New York University, and has worked at several nonprofits, including Henry Street Settlement and Common Cause/NY. Specializing in political violence and human rights, Prachi has conducted extensive research on topics ranging from Occupy Wall Street to post-conflict community organization in Peru.
In August, British comedian Stephen Fry fired off an impassioned letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron, urging him to call for an "absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014."
Cameron thanked Fry for his concern and offered the following response: "I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics." With outrage over discriminatory Russian laws against its LGBT minority growing, it seems that world leaders and athletes are embroiled in a similar debate: to attend, or not to attend.
Politicians the world over aren’t about to band together to openly boycott Sochi for any one reason (there are many), but with the start of the games on Feb. 7 fast approaching, the roll out for the Olympics is suffering something akin to death by a thousand cuts. World leaders are taking shots at Russia left and right, and the games are now threatening to turn into a PR nightmare for President Vladimir Putin.
This morning, the White House dropped a matter-of-fact statement listing the names of the U.S. delegation to the controversial Winter Olympics Games in Sochi — a list that conspicuously didn’t include President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, or Jill Biden. While Obama hasn’t headed the delegation for any Olympic Games during his presidency, his delegations have certainly been star-studded. For the 2012 Summer Olympics, Michelle Obama went as the U.S. emissary; for the 2010 Winter Games, Biden and his wife jointly headed the delegation. President George W. Bush led delegation in 2008, along with the first lady; for the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Laura Bush made the trek alone. In a clear break with tradition, the Sochi delegation will be led by former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, now the president of the University of California.
The White House didn’t elaborate on the decision — mentioning only that the delegation represents "the diversity that is the United States" and that the president would be too busy to attend — but it doesn’t take a leap of logic to realize that the delegation something of a shot across the Russian bow in response to a recent crackdown on its gay community. The presidential delegation will include two prominent gay athletes: Billie Jean King — the tennis icon with 12 Grand Slam titles to her name — and hockey player Caitlin Cahow.
In June, Putin signed a law prohibiting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors," and since then, the country has experienced an outpouring of homophobia. Gay rights protests have been subjected to violence — at the hands of both thugs and the police. Meanwhile, Russia’s controversial "foreign agents" law has been used to target pro-LGBT rights organizations in Russia. Last month, Russian state television broadcast an ugly piece of anti-gay propaganda — all while featuring the Olympic rings.
While many have called on the United States to boycott the Olympics as a result, President Obama seems content to let his delegation — and his Olympians — do the talking for him. "One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing here," he said in August.
The United States isn’t alone in poking Moscow in the eye over the gay-rights laws. Canada decided to send Vancouver’s openly gay city councilor, Tim Stevenson, to advocate that the Russian organizers include a "Pride House," as Vancouver did in 2010. Danish parliamentary leader Marianne Jelved said she won’t boycott the games, that she "believe[s] in engaging in a critical dialogue," and that she intends to bring up the issue of gay rights if she meets a Russian minister. While claiming it has nothing to do with gay rights, the German national team will be wearing a "stylish" rainbow uniform.
Still, Sochi will be the first time in 20 years that the United States isn’t represented at the Olympics by a president, vice president, one of their spouses, or a cabinet-level official, but American officials aren’t the only ones who are skipping the games this year. Vice President of the European Commission Vivane Reding also isn’t attending, she says, as long as "minorities are treated the way they are under the current Russian legislation." Earlier this month, German President Joachim Gauck and French President Francois Hollande announced that they would not be attending, though they didn’t explain why. No other top French officials are slated to attend either. Officials from other countries, like Poland and Georgia, are boycotting for different reasons.
While it’s looking like there will be a distinct lack of world leaders in Sochi, there will be no shortage of controversy.