Canada should have withdrawn from the Sochi games

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are underway and are already drawing plenty of attention for all the wrong reasons. While the opening ceremonies and the first few events have been relatively successful, this year’s Olympics and their host country have been plagued with criticisms even before the torch was lit.

From allegations of government corruption and misspending, to stories of unfit or even unfinished hotels and accommodations, to complaints from athletes that the event courses are dangerous and poorly designed, the world has not had many positive things to say and hear about Sochi.

However, perhaps the most incendiary issue is Russia’s increasingly combative stance regarding homosexuality and its LGBTQ community. Of particular concern is a piece of legislation ratified in June that prohibits distributing propaganda of “nontraditional sexual relations.”

It’s important to note that this is not the first controversy on the subject to come out of Russia. In May of 2012, a Moscow court officially banned any pride parades or rallies in favour of homosexuality for the next hundred years. The 2013 legislation is not an isolated incident, but seems more to be the latest manifestation of a legislative trend.

Indeed, while many countries around the world are taking steps to improve and safeguard LGBT rights, Russia is among those moving in the opposite direction.

While the 2013 legislation has only been the cause of a handful of fines in Russia, the more troubling impact is the message that it sends. This message has been heard not only by Russia itself—where there has been a noticeable increase in hate crimes and homophobic violence since the legislation was passed—but also internationally, attracting condemnation from many equality and LGBT rights organizations.

The press surrounding the Olympics has only amplified this message; ironically, a key reason Russia wanted to host the Games was to demonstrate that they are becoming a modern and cooperative actor on the world stage.

But there’s another message being sent through the Olympics, one that is perhaps even more troubling: the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and all countries participating in the Olympics accept Russia’s discriminatory policies. While this has not been explicitly stated, the absence of any distinct, outright, and forceful reproach makes me wonder how we’re expected to believe anything else.

The IOC has been distinctly tight-lipped on the issue, saying only that the legislation in question does not violate their charter. A few countries, such as Germany and the United States, have issued formal statements decrying Russia’s policy and affirming that their leaders will not attend the Olympics, but this is about the extent of any official response. In Canada, the only response was a quick condemnation from Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird. The government even went so far as to clarify that Stephen Harper’s absence from the Games did not have any political motives.

This, simply put, is not enough. If we as a country are committed to furthering and ensuring LGBT rights, we need to be prepared to defend them, both domestically and abroad. At the very least, we should be loudly and publicly condemning Russia’s actions. Even boycotting this year’s Olympics should have been considered. The fact that our Prime Minister didn’t even make a statement, meanwhile, is unacceptable.

The Olympics are all about sending a message on the world stage, and that goes beyond the events and the athletes. In the past few years, Russia has clearly sent the message that they actively oppose LGBT rights. Canada and the world had the opportunity to send them a message in return, to say that we will accept nothing less than equal treatment for all people, regardless of sexuality.

I’m sad to say that this is an opportunity that we did not use.

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