LGBT rights activist Cyd Zeigler has suggested that rather than ban Russia from hosting the Olympics over its anti-gay laws, a better approach would be to ban Russian athletes from competing. Let Russia host the Olympics he says; just ban their athletes from competing the same way athletes from Apartheid South Africa were banned for decades.
Dave Zirin wrote a response to Zeigler that made many strong points. One of his best points was that “if the only countries allowed in the Olympics had sparkling records on human rights, we’d be watching polar bears race penguins on an ice drift in Antarctica.“
I would add that banning Russian athletes would perpetuate a very destructive lie: that powerful Western states (whose elites basically run the IOC) have acceptable human rights records and should therefore stand in judgment of others. That was the problem with the ban on South African athletes. Of course you can point to problems with any tactic people may deploy to struggle for human rights, but Zeigler's proposal is way too steepd in hypocrisy and inconsistency. There is, however, an easy fix.
The campaign Zeigler proposed would be drastically improved if it also called for a ban on athletes from those 29 US states that allow people to be fired just because they are gay. These 29 US states happen to include the infamous “stand your ground” state of Florida and the five states that use the death penalty the most. In other words, they include US states that deserve to be targeted for other reasons.
Don’t countries besides the USA and Russia treat gay people very badly and do other incredibly rotten things? Of course, but most of them are not major medal contenders, so the tactic of banning their athletes from the Olympics is not nearly as powerful.
Singling out Russia alone attracts support from people inclined to punish Russia for what it did right – grant Edward Snowden asylum – rather than for what it does wrong. With my suggested tweak to Zeigler’s campaign, those unsavory allies will scatter faster than Usain Bolt.
A vastly better campaign, morally, would be to ban athletes from any state that has nuclear weapons, or is engaged in a military occupation, or from any country that ranks in the top ten for arms exports, or that ranks in the top ten in CO2 emissions – in short, the countries that most seriously threaten all life on earth.
However, calling for such a ban would amount to calling for the exclusion of the Olympics’ major medal contenders and sponsors. It would essentially be calling for the abolition of the Olympics in its present form. That’s hardly a bad thing, but so ambitious a campaign is easy to ignore. Modest and limited demands have their uses because they are more difficult to dismiss.
Though modest, what I suggest is also bold enough to avoid a great deal of hypocrisy and inconsistency often bound up with limited demands. Of course we can't avoid all hypocrisy and inconsistency or we are back to those polar bear versus penguin races that Dave Zirin talked about. No tactic is perfect.