Sochi athletes could use platform to strike blow against demagogue

Western governments have cocked symbolic snoots at Vladimir Putin’s laws against freedom of speech and impact of anti-gay legislation

It's apt that possibly the most powerful single image in sport – Tommie Smith and John Carlos's Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico Olympics – isn't about sport at all but a much wider, deeper and more problematic context, something to consider ahead of Friday's Winter OIympics opening ceremony in Sochi.

The systematic racism that Smith and Carlos protested against was an obscenity. What gets forgotten now in the midst the wall-poster, student-gaff trendiness of that image is that both men were booed in the stadium in Mexico City, got expelled from the Games, and returned home to opprobrium in the land of free. That it’s the image which remains memorable though shows the power of a gesture.

Using the Olympics as a stage to protest is nothing new, even if that has mostly now revolved around governments using games for their own strategic interests with the inevitable tawdry political baggage that accompanies suits playing diplomatic chess with the lifelong dreams of young athletes.

Western governments have ignored calls to boycott Sochi but cocked symbolic snoots at Vladimir Putin’s laws against freedom of speech in general and more specifically the impact of Russian government anti-gay legislation: not enough to actually do something that might pee off the preening president but enough to partially assuage public opinion, a delicate balancing act of expediency that allows the straight-faced presentation of “protest zones” as some sort of concession.


These zones are the same as took place during the 2008 summer games in Beijing, a speakers corner for athletes, strategically placed somewhere on the outskirts of the city allowing protest to be parked safely on the outskirts of public consciousness.

Cynical move
The Sochi version is seven miles from the nearest Olympic venue, actually in a completely different town called Khosta. It's a cynical move that allows Putin, the IOC and governments to claim protest is okay, just so long as no one's looking; a variation on the gay propaganda laws where someone can be gay, just with no one looking. And last week it was enough for the Sochi organising committee boss to feel entitled in telling athletes not to talk about anything other than sport at press conferences. This greasy-pole climbing apparatchik even got to claim some legitimacy on the subject since the IOC charter states no protest is permitted within an Olympic venue.

A modicum of logistical allowance has to be made here. There’s no getting away from how allowing the world’s sporting stage to willy-nilly become a vehicle for protest involves the risk of permitting exhibitions of gross ignorance and prejudice. Not every protester is shouting for the cool, trendy and right-on, and even when they are, one person’s just cause is always someone else’s unjust affront.

So a blanket ban which presumes athletes have no more on their minds than winning can be a convenient if lumpen policy. That it is backed up by a threat of possible disqualification only emphasises how a one-size-quietens-all approach has hammered out plenty of the nuances that are behind these Games.

Or they would if those nuances weren't as subtle as Putin's bare-chested self-aggrandisement usually is. Russia's anti-gay laws are viciously prejudiced, as obscene in their own way as the prejudice Smith and Carles, and indeed the Australian Peter Norman who supported them, and paid the price back in the land of the fair-go, stood up against. They're enough to make one wonder how such an international event gets to be hosted in a country that systematically puts such prejudice in its statute book, but then an event that generates over $50 billion was never going to have justice and equality high up its list of priorities.

Individual protest
Just as it is very easy to be generous with someone else's money, it's also easy to be brave with someone else's courage, especially with 3,000 miles worth of anonymity to spare. And expecting individual protest of the sort made famous in Mexico is expecting way too much, especially in a digital world which increasingly removes privacy from our list of rights. But Russia's laws deserve protesting against. They fly in the face of the inclusivity and fairness that Olympic competition is supposedly all about. It's worth remembering how gestures can be made, and without requiring the sort of individual sacrifice made in Mexico.

Sixty years before that, at the 1908 London Games, the American team refused to drop their flag in front of King Edward VII as convention required. The precise reasons are unclear. Some believe it was a protest by Irish-Americans against British rule in Ireland; others because the Stars and Stripes wasn't flying in the stadium. Folklore has it Martin Sheridan from Bohola, Co Mayo, told the US captain not to lower the flag during the opening ceremony. "This flag dips to no earthly King," is what Sheridan supposedly said, and if he didn't say it, he should have.

Since then, US teams have traditionally never dipped the flag, a gesture often dismissed as arrogance, but on Friday night, how wonderful it would be if teams of athletes actually stood up for what the Games are supposed to be about and adapted a similar sort of gesture against a modern-day demagogue. It might not concretely change anything but time would prove it to be anything but empty.