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The upcoming Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, are already a venue for a global debate about LGBT equality. Some activists are calling for a boycott of the games, in the wake of the passage of Russian laws that target “homosexual propaganda” and adoptions of Russian children by same-sex couples. But there’s a long history of the games doubling as a venue for political debates. Sports writer Dave Zirin joins us in the studio to consider how this latest controversy fits into that tradition.
- Dave Zirin Sports Editor, The Nation; Author, “Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down” (New Press, 2013)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world.
MR. KOJO NNAMDILater in the broadcast, another America. We'll go behind the history of Liberia and the former slaves who established that country more than a century and a half ago. But first, how the upcoming Winter Olympic Games became a venue for a worldwide debate about LGBT equality. Gay and lesbian activists all across the globe are calling for a boycott of next year's games in Sochi, Russia, to protest recent laws enacted there that ban the adoption of Russian-born children to gay couples and to any couple or single parent living in a country where same-sex marriage is legal.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnother new Russian law on the books bans "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations." This past week's world track and field championships, which were hosted in Moscow, offered a preview of sorts for how the debate about how LGBT equality might spill out onto a larger stage ahead of next year's Olympic Games.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to explore this particular collision of sports and politics is Dave Zirin. He is sports editor at The Nation, author of several books, the most recent of which is titled, "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." He's also the co-author of the John Carlos story, "The Sports Moment That Changed the World." Dave Zirin, welcome.
MR. DAVE ZIRINOh, great to be here. Thanks.
NNAMDIYou got questions or comments? Give us a call, 800-433-8850. How do you feel about the Olympic Games serving as a venue for political and social debate? 800-433-8850. Dave, you wrote yourself, earlier this month that it's not all that often that you see the athlete John Carlos, the actor Harvey Fierstein, and Russian president Vladimir Putin all appearing in the same story. Yet, here we are, months away from games that could trigger political moments, like the one that John Carlos was a part of when he raised his fist on the medal stand in 1968.
NNAMDIAnd activists, like Fierstein, are calling allies to use the Games for such a protest. How did we get here?
ZIRINWell, we got here first and foremost with the laws that you describe that Vladimir Putin and the Russian Duma -- that's their parliament -- put on the books, criminalizing LGBT life in Russia. We've also gotten here because those kinds of laws have also spurred a series of attacks and even murders in Russia, which have people deeply concerned. Even a Dutch tourist and his partner were detained for two weeks because the law prohibits the idea of foreign nationals coming to Russia and "propagating" the "LGBT lifestyle."
NNAMDIYou have written that whether or not a boycott actually occurs, calls like Fierstein's for a boycott that connect Russia's laws to the Olympics are politically a work of genius. Why do you feel that way?
ZIRINAbsolutely. Well, partly because this has been going on in Russia for some time with very little international attention. And yet, now that Russia's going to be host to the Sochi Olympics, the Winter Games in 2014, it's raising all kinds of international alarm bells, particularly because leading figures in Russia's government have said that any athletes would not be safe if they came and made any statements in favor of LGBT rights, whether they themselves are LGBT or not.
ZIRINThat, in and of itself, has made this an issue that's caused a lot of alarm among athletes and a lot of pressure to the International Olympic Committee, for them to say whether or not they would in fact defend athletes if they choose to go there and make some sort of political statement.
NNAMDIFrom what you can tell, how do the calls for a boycott resonate within Russia itself?
ZIRINWell, within Russia itself there's actually a lot of debate. And keep in mind, there are two kinds of boycotts that people have been calling for. The first is that countries just stay home in protest of the Russian Games, which would be an echo of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow…
ZIRIN…where the U.S. stayed home because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan -- irony alert. And 1984, of course, the Eastern Block stayed home from the Olympics in Los Angeles. Then there are other voices, though, who are also saying that Russia itself should be banned from competing in the Games in their own country. A bit of wishful thinking, I suppose, but the idea of them having to actually sit out, not unlike South Africa sat out the Olympics for about three decades because of their apartheid practices.
ZIRINThose are the debates happening, but I have to tell you within the LGBT sports community, LGBT sport organizations there's very little support for a boycott and much more support for athletes being able to go over there and actually just let their politics soar. And actually go over there and defy the International Olympic Committee's ban on political demonstrations and do things that would draw attention to the LGBT community. And that's what a lot of people in Russia are organizing for, as well, including a Pride march to take place in Sochi, with the start of the Games.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation and author of several books. The most recent of which is "Game Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. What do you think sports contribute to a conversation like the one going on nationally and internationally about LGBT equality? Give us a call, 800-433-8850.
NNAMDIYou wrote this book about John Carlos and the sports moment that changed the world. How do the times compare now to 1968? Because, if indeed, there are demonstrations in Russia, one remembers how John Carlos and Tommie Smith were vilified. They were sent home from the Olympics and then when they returned home they were vilified some more. One, however, gets the impression that the mood in the country might be different today.
ZIRINYes. But what's worth remembering about 1968 -- and I certainly learned this from talking to John Carlos -- is that when he and Tommie Smith came back to the United States, as you well know, Kojo, 1968 was a time where there was a lot of support for black power politics and for the politics of the African American Freedom struggle.
ZIRINSo they certainly had support, as well, on a grassroots level when they came home.
NNAMDICertainly celebrated on predominately black campuses.
ZIRINExactly. And particularly Howard University…
ZIRIN…for example. But the problem was, when they got back there were the issues of, okay, now I want to find a job. Or I want to coach track and field or I want to be connected, still, with the track and field community. And that's where the doors were really slammed in their face because the International Olympic Committee and the United States Olympic Committee made sure that Carlos and Smith paid a price for what they did. And, unfortunately, on that front, it certainly seems like things have not changed as much as we would like.
NNAMDIIn terms of the International Olympic Committee?
ZIRINYes. And their prohibitions on political protests at the Games.
NNAMDIThis past weekend at the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow, a pair of female Russian athletes got a lot of attention when they kissed on the medal stand. It's not yet clear whether this was a moment of conscious protest. Does it matter if it was a moment of conscious protest?
ZIRINWell, it matters in only so far as the two women themselves, Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firova, if they in fact would get interrogation or even imprisonment for doing what they did, that would classify under Russia's law. So it certainly matters to them and their family and to the LGBT community. People in their camp have put out word that, no, no, no. It was just a standard Russian custom. And certainly, if you watch the video, as opposed to the still photo, it looks like much more of just like a peck, a peck, a peck, and not the sort of conscious political act that a lot of people were kind of hoping it would be.
ZIRINBut the mere fact that when it happens light bulbs went off all over the world and people said, oh, my goodness. And my inbox was flooded, saying oh, it's a Carlos-Smith, Smith-Carlos moment in Moscow. I mean, it just shows you how much people really are spoiling for a fight at the Sochi Olympics next year, than I think are really going to willing to test Russia and test Putin's government to say are you really going to arrest me? Well, give it a try.
NNAMDIWhat else did you learn from watching the World Championships in Moscow this weekend? Several athletes made statements about this issue. A Swedish athlete was apparently told that her rainbow fingernails could have been violation of the event's code of conduct.
ZIRINYes. Actually two Swedish athletes, in fact. And also, there was a U.S. 800-meter runner named Nick Simmons who dedicate his silver medal to his LGBT friends back home. Now, the other interesting thing to come out of this was the head of the Russian Olympic Committee -- a person who doesn't necessarily have a great deal of formal power, it's worth saying -- tried to say, well, people are just making too much out of this. No. Russia is not going to arrest anybody. Nobody really understands our laws and this is just a kind of Western invention.
ZIRINNow, if he was on the show right now I would read him a direct quote from one of the leading members of the Russian parliament, who said, "Yes. We will arrest people for making pro-LGBT statements." But it says something about the degree to which people in Russia, who are stirring this kind of hatred up, are kind of back on their heels, precisely because of the Olympics and the spotlight it's shining on the laws.
NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here's Mo, in Rockville, Md. Mo, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MOYes. Thanks for having me. I guess my question is, if this issue is such an important issue to, you know, a greater portion of the world population and the athletes, why is there no provision in the Olympic Committee's charter or whatever to refer to before a country's awarded to host an Olympic Games?
NNAMDIWell, I guess, in this case, the 436 to nothing vote in the Duma came after the Olympic Committee had agreed to do this, but some have called on the International Olympic Committee itself to take a stand about this issue prior to the Games. You've written that you're pretty skeptical of this happening.
ZIRINWell, to put it mildly, I mean, it's sort of like asking a cat to bark or a dog to meow. It's really not in the International Olympic Committee's very nature, genetic makeup, to do anything that stands with social justice. The caller does make a point, though, that's worth exploring. It is written explicitly in the International Olympic Committee charter that nations should respect human rights and there's a lot of flowery language about brotherhood and sisterhood and the way athletes can bring people together.
ZIRINThe problem is that it's never enforced, for goodness sakes. And if you look at the places where the Olympics have happened and some of the countries, and if you also look at some of the repression that takes place before the Olympics are there -- and no country is exempt from this. I can tell stories about 2008 in China, where two and a half million people were displaced or Atlanta, Ga. in 1996, where the ACLU was able to successfully sue the Atlanta Police Department because of wide-scale racial profiling, arresting young African American men in the lead up to the Olympics and the destruction of public housing in '96 in Atlanta.
ZIRINWherever the Olympics go these kinds of injustices follow, and the IOC doesn't do anything. They wouldn't even take a stand against apartheid South Africa until the movement in South Africa itself became so loud that it was impossible to ignore.
NNAMDIThe last time we talked on this broadcast we talked about Jason Collins, the professional basketball player who made big waves by going public with his sexual orientation. He became the first active athlete in a major professional American sports league to do so. Collins is a free agent and he has not signed with a team yet for this season. What do you expect is going to happen? And how would you feel, if after all this, he does not end up on a roster this season?
ZIRINIt would be very painful, especially because a World Wrestling Entertainment -- people might know what the WWE is, which is known for its sort of homophobic tropes with wrestlers…
ZIRIN…coming out and stirring up the crowd by acting in a very, shall we say…
NNAMDIMinstrel would be better than macho.
ZIRINYeah, yeah, in a minstrel manner. They have a wrestler who just came out of the closet, named…
NNAMDII saw that.
ZIRIN…named Darren Young. And Darren Young was asked why he did it, given the history of wrestling and it not being a particularly tolerant place. And he said he was inspired by Jason Collins. And World Wrestling Entertainment said that Darren Young in no danger of losing his job. And it would be quite a sorry statement if the WWE proved to be more tolerant than the NBA. But Jason Collins is in a difficult situation. He's 34 years old. He's at the end of his career. He's a journeyman player.
ZIRINYet, at the same time the inability of him to get signed, I mean, strikes more than a few people as curious.
NNAMDIDace Zirin. He is sports editor at the Nation and author of several books, the most recent of which is titled "Gave Over: How Politics Turned the Sports World Upside Down." He's also the co-author of "The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed The World." I guess we can say that before the Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, this LGBT controversy is definitely not over.
ZIRINNo, not even close.
NNAMDIWell, thank you so much for joining us, even though it's my understanding that you had to be brought here by Jake and Sasha and...
ZIRINMy children, yes.
NNAMDI...that you had to be produced by Jane before you could even show up to do anything at all.
ZIRINMy mother, yes.
NNAMDIFor bringing you here.
ZIRINIt's a family affair, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, another America. We'll go behind the history of Liberia and the former slaves who established the country more than a century-and-a-half ago. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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