In light of Russia’s appalling stance on gay rights, the Sochi Olympics represent a true ethical dilemma for the organizations involved.
On one hand, Russia’s recent anti-gay law is truly ethically abhorrent, and should be denounced in the strongest possible terms. If Vladimir Putin’s government is willing to jail people, or worse, simply for expressing a desire to be treated equally, it certainly doesn’t deserve the warm fuzzy spotlight of the quadrennial Olympic love-in.
On the other hand, liberal democratic ideals don’t spread through a policy of isolation. Boycotting (or moving) the Olympics might teach the Russians a quick lesson about what is and is not acceptable to the international community, but it will be a rather terse and ineloquent lesson. The kind of interaction that the Olympics make possible, indeed inevitable, opens up a lot more space for dialogue.
It’s worth noting that the dilemma faced by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Olympic sponsors is in some ways similar to the dilemma faced by many Western multinational corporations when doing business in places that do not live up to the kinds of standards Westerners are used to. Doing business in a developing nation can mean being subject, for example, to very different workplace health and safety standards and significantly lower—or even absent—environmental regulations. And even if companies were to decide to adhere voluntarily to higher standards, they have to realize that their local suppliers and indeed local governments are liable to act in ways that would be considered unacceptable “back home.” Such companies have to decide: should we do business here or not?
Some will argue that, with regard to such dilemmas of international commerce, human rights violations represent a line in the sand. It’s one thing to have workers work slightly longer hours than would be permissible in Canada or the U.S., but it’s another thing entirely to make use of forced labour, or to engage in discrimination based on race or sex. But then, even with regard to human rights, a distinction can be made between engaging in human rights violations, on one hand, and merely doing business in a place where others do so on the other. It’s not necessarily wrong to do business in a place where human rights violations occur, especially if a company does what it can, whenever it can, to make things better.
So the IOC and Olympic sponsors might similarly argue that, yes, Russia’s treatment of homosexuals is a human rights violation and ethically unacceptable, but as long as such violations don’t happen at the Olympics, they themselves are doing no wrong.
But one issue that none of the organizations involved can easily shrug off is the safety of the athletes. There is at least some risk that Russian authorities will detain or deport any Olympic athlete who violates the legal prohibition on “homosexual propaganda.” Deportation would merely be an embarrassing hassle. But detention could be truly dangerous. If some brave athlete should speak out, be taken into custody, and—it’s not unimaginable—something bad happen to that athlete, then the organizations that made such a chain of events possible would bear at least some of the blame.
But things are complicated somewhat by the fact that at least some Russian gay-advocacy groups have asked the international community not to boycott Sochi. A boycott, they point out, would leave them to struggle in the dark. They prefer the light, however muted, that the Sochi Olympics promises to shed on their plight. And while such groups don’t hold a moral trump card, their voices certainly deserve considerable attention.
So maybe the IOC and other organizations involved truly are in a no-win situation. Or, at least, a situation in which all of the options on the table are fraught with ethical peril. In such situations, the meaningful ethical discussions must happen around the edges. Has the IOC gone far enough to denounce Russia’s anti-gay stance? Can and should it go farther? Will broadcasters and sponsors do anything (perhaps something not directly tied to the Olympics) to advance the cause of equality? What can governments in Canada, the U.S. and Western Europe do to lobby Moscow for meaningful change, and what in turn should Western companies do to encourage their governments to put such pressure on Moscow? In the end, the IOC and the other organizations involved should perhaps be judged not by what they choose to do, but by how they choose to do it.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.