Holding hands, red shirts and boycotts


There is much to be said for good counterfactual history. Explorations of what might have happened if something did not turn out as it did can help up make sense of past and present circumstances and equally importantly can be politically useful by allowing us to imagine what might be. Like all history, counterfactual conjecture is deeply political and much of what we have seen over the last twenty years or so is deeply conservative. It is a risky area to work in.

In a useful intervention into the debates about whether or not attempts to boycott the Sochi Olympics could have been effective, Mike Marqusee, responding a recent letter in The Guardian considers the possible effects of a successful boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a lost opportunity to isolate the Nazi régime at an early stage. He quite properly notes that a successful boycott campaign would be likely to have been a much more powerful slap-in-the-fascist face than Jesse Owens’ four gold medals. In the other case of high profile success after an unsuccessful boycott campaign the original letter cites, Mexico 1968, we have been left with one of sport politics’ most potent images – Tommy Smith and John Carlos’ black power salute on the podium at the 200m medal ceremony; the global media and image industries of the 1930s did not leave us with an equally potent iconic image of Owens’ success.

This set of circumstances, the politics of the Sochi games, Marqusee’s article and David Rowe’s recent idrottsforum column about athlete activists opens up the question of sports boycotts and their potential. Alongside the usual pre-Olympic discussion about financial costs, environmental effects, dispossession and exploited workers that we have come to associate with mega-events the lead up to these Olympics has been dominated by the politics of LGBT rights.

Amid all the debate there have been two tactical elements that stand out as politically significant and worthy of further exploration: there has been a consistent but not widespread call for a boycott, not just of the games but from some for a boycott of Russia; there has also been growing pressure or expectation that athletes will take some form of action. Some have, and the Principle 6 campaign seems to resonate with many through its invocation of the statement in the Olympic Charter that “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” There is the risk, however, that unless there is a Sochi Smith-Carlos moment that this campaign will be little more than t-shirt wearing, sticker posting and feeling good about ourselves for taking a stand in the face of anti-LGBT legislation. Harsh, perhaps, but although unstated it is hard to avoid the sense that Principle 6 and campaigns like it are the ‘realistic’ option while the boycott call both unrealistic and making athletes pay the price of political principle.

As we know from the events of 1968, the Smith-Carlos salute was not spontaneous but carefully planned – there is little that is successful in politics without meticulous planning. For those of us from afar, our Principle 6 shirt or same sex hand holding (an action initiated by Pride House) may be the best we can do. This is not, however, to grant credence to the boycott-is-unrealistic/idealistic view. The boycott issue deserves a closer look, but to do so we need to step beyond previous Olympic boycotts where discussion seems dominated by Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984 and take account of both the anti-apartheid boycott (unlike Moscow & LA, that’s the successful one) and ‘what if?’ explorations such as Marqusee’s.

Sports boycotts, or for that matter almost any kind of sanction, are never successful in isolation. International sanctions work best when spread across many fronts, centred on multiple issues and spread over a long time frame. The anti-apartheid boycott campaign began in the mid-1950s, became an organised international civil society campaign in 1959, slowly built and drew an increasing number of governments on side and did not achieve its goals – the end of apartheid – until 1992-94 when the key South African legislation maintaining apartheid was repealed.

The key words in that description are ‘civil society’: there is little evidence that state initiated sanction in support of human rights, for instance, achieve their outcomes. For instance, the US official most associated with sanctions against the Saddam Hussein government in Iraq, Carne Ross, told a UK parliamentary select committee in 2007: ”The weight of evidence clearly indicates that sanctions caused massive human suffering among ordinary Iraqis, particularly children. We, the US and UK governments, were the primary engineers and offenders of sanctions and were well aware of the evidence at the time but we largely ignored it and blamed it on the Saddam government … effectively denying the entire population the means to live.” Equally, there is little evidence that targeted sanctions against governments or government officials in Zimbabwe or Syria or Tunisia had any significant effect. But that is not an argument against sanctions; it is evidence that sport and other cultural sanctions need to be rethought.

Successful sanctions, boycotts or embargoes rely on several things; they do not work in isolation, they need to consider the target states access to alternatives and they need to ensure the greatest possible cultural and national psychological effects. They also enhance their legitimacy by being in support of indigenous calls and even further by being able to point to indigenous alternative forms of leadership or organisation. In the short term, the call for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics was unlikely to achieve the first of these – boycotts of other areas – in part because of existing geopolitical support for Russia and in part because of European and other support dependence on Russian energy sources. A successful boycott could have been a significant cultural blow but could also have reinforced the sense among much of the Russian élite that they are right, at least if Oleg Riabov and Tatiana Riabova are correct that Russia is positioning itself to be a world saviour protection it from ‘Gayropa’; the stakes here are bigger than the rights of LGBT people in Russia, but those rights and LGBT people’s well-being are at the centre of the issue. A successful boycott could also have markedly shifted the debates about Russia’s populist nationalism, its sense of self as world saviour and the cohesion of the Russian élite; it might also have made life very difficult for many Russian LGBT people.

So, by all means, support the Principle 6 campaign and practice same sex hand holding – but don’t do it only because there are no other options (options emerge only because circumstances change, and it is we who make them change) and don’t do it because athletes should be exempt from any responsibility for taking a stand – as former England rugby player Ben Cohen reminds us, although not endorsing a boycott, athletes as much as anyone else have a responsibility to stand up.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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