In a few weeks, some of the finest athletes in the world will gather for the quadrennial Winter Olympic festival in Sochi, Russia. The last time the Olympics were held in Russia, it was still the Soviet Union, and the Americans, among other nations, did not send a team to compete. President Jimmy Carter decided that the United States would not participate on Soviet soil while the Soviet troops were engaged in armed hostilities in its neighboring country to the south, Afghanistan. Geo-politics trumped global athletics. It is not surprising that once again in 2014 politics and sports are inextricably intertwined.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian strongman, has used the coming Olympics as a forum for emphasizing to the world the “evils” of homosexuality. Russia has enacted a law that bans the distribution of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” to minors. Gay activists have been arrested and hate crimes have multiplied. Those in the United States who have recently discovered that the aegis of equality covers sexual identity as well as race, gender, national origin and other suspect categories find Putin’s stand offensive. Anyone who would use Sochi as an occasion for protest, however, will be subject to arrest under the Russian edict.
Few have suggested that the United States should once again boycott the Olympics. Most, however, favor symbolic actions that will loudly proclaim that we are not homophobic — at least not anymore. The problem with that stance is that it runs against the deep strain in the American ethos that agrees with Putin’s harsh position on the rights of gays and lesbians. Only a minority of American states bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, while a majority bans marriage equality in their state constitutions. Hypocrisy has never been exclusively an American trait, but we are very good at it.