Civil Rights and the Olympic Games: Who Will Take A Stand?

The year was 1936. Three years earlier, the Nazi’s came to power in Germany. In three short years, they charted a course for the final solution that not only initiated ethnic cleansing against Jews but also targeted the Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, and those whose political ideologies worked against the regime. Europe suspected that a power-play was coming. How would it respond in 1936?

It was in 1931 that the International Olympic Committee awarded Berlin the summer games. Even in the face of what would become the greatest horror of modern Europe, the games would not be moved or canceled. Perhaps it was that many countries wanted to avoid ostracizing an emerging world power. Perhaps some preferred to ignore the human rights abuses.

The 1936 Berlin games were historic. They were the first televised Olympic event. It was also at these games that introduced the torch relay from Greece to light the Olympic flame. The Berlin games also created a venue for Germany to demonstrate pride on an international stage.

Western democracies debated the appropriateness of a boycott of the 1936 Olympics because of Hitler’s racist policies. Earlier in 1936, Hitler declared that only people of Aryan descent could be part of sports organizations in Germany. It was unclear how this official policy would impact the summer games.

The United States Olympic Committee came to a decision about a boycott: the US would participate in the games. Avery Brundage of the US Olympic Committee framed the final decision. Brundage claimed that politics had no place in a sporting event, that athletes who had trained for years deserved their chance to participate, and that there was not clear evidence of the mistreatment of Jews in Germany. With the US decision to participate in the games, other Western democracies agreed to move forward and send their delegations.

It’s now 77 years since the Berlin Summer Olympics. We know that Hitler used the games as a political platform to solidify the base of the Nazi party. We now face another Olympic games that will be marred by abusive civil rights legislation in the host country. What will the world do?

The International Olympic Committee has been clear thus far: participating athletes must follow Russian law. US President Obama has reiterated a rationale for participation in the games that sounds much like that Brundage used for the 1936 games: it’s unfair to the athletes who have prepared for the games to even consider a boycott. Ultimately, other countries will fall in line with the course the US takes while athletes assess their risk for silent protests on the podium.

It’s my opinion that Russia’s laws on gay visibility are fundamentally entwined with the desire of the Putin administration to secure their political base. Recent years have produced more significant political opposition to Putin’s regime and its unholy alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. From the long view of history, Russia is all too familiar with autocratic rulers who use religion to legitimize their rule. The leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church has always been willing to fulfill this role in return for the benefits of the alignment between church and state. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered people are simply easy targets. Stirring up homophobia and the baseless fear that homosexuals routinely victimize innocent children creates the illusion that the government and church are working together for the betterment of the country. The policies are a great mask for the corruption actually in place in Russia.

The IOC and several Western governments have made their intentions clear: the Winter Games of 2014 will continue as planned. But the power behind the Olympics isn’t found in the IOC, governments, or national Olympic committees. Instead, the real power is the corporate sponsorship which enables the games to occur. Given that international corporations have been on the forefront of issues related to diversity, taking stands of equality in the workplace, perhaps corporations can be pursued to influence the Russian games and human rights. These corporations have allies among stock holders and other stake holders.

Will Putin be as devious as Hitler? Will Putin relax homophobic laws during the games much like Hitler relaxed race-based laws in 1936? Will Putin congratulate gay and lesbian athletes as Hitler congratulated athletes of African descent? Will Putin project the image of a society that values the contributions of each member much as did Hitler during the games? As a shrewd politician, I’m sure that Putin will fill the role of gracious host no matter what occurs behind the scenes.

More importantly, what will people of conscience do as events in Russia unfold? Are there people who will take a stand against injustice and call for international pressure on Russia? What about the influence American Evangelical Christians exert in Africa in working to establish homophobic laws that lead to the arrest and torture of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people?

The lessons of history are clear: when the world stood idly by in the face of injustice, tragedy follows. So it was with the Berlin Olympics. The August 1936 Summer Games were followed by the German takeover of much of Europe in a brief few years.. For Hitler, the Olympics put the world at ease as he prepared to take his next step. What will be the next step after the Sochi games in the internally oppression of gay, lesbian, and transgendered people? Who will stand against injustice?

© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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