The more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.
We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.
What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage. I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision. I looked back in history to see how this debate played out at the time of the 1936 Olympic games in Germany. Initially, there was a question of boycotting the games that was perhaps most intensively considered in the USA. According to a review of those events provided by the Holocaust Encyclopedia hosted by the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.:
Responding to reports of the persecution of Jewish athletes in 1933, Avery Brundage, president of the American Olympic Committee (AOC), stated: “The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.”
However, Brundage then went on to assert that his investigation led him to believe that German Jewish athletes (and other Jewish athletes) would not be discriminated against at the games. He argued “…that politics had no place in sport. He fought to send a US team to the 1936 Olympics, claiming: “The Olympic Games belong to the athletes and not to the politicians.” He wrote in the AOC’s pamphlet “Fair Play for American Athletes” that American athletes should not become involved in the present “Jew-Nazi altercation.” As the Olympics controversy heated up in 1935, Brundage alleged the existence of a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy” to keep the United States out of the Games.”
With the benefit of hindsight, would we argue today that a different decision should have been made? I struggle with the answer. I know that one of the things that I most remember from what I have previously learned about the events of that time is the victory of Jesse Owens, winning four gold medals, highlighting the absurdity of Hitler’s belief in the supremacy of the “Aryan race.” Will we loudly celebrate every success of a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender athlete at the Sochi Games?
I hear the perspective that it is the presence of the games in Russia that is heightening media attention on the realities in that country. Attention which, I believe, these horrific laws and actions would most likely not receive to the same degree were it not for the games. I also struggle with the question of what sponsors should be doing. I would like nothing more than to learn that Russia finds itself with a huge bill at the end of these games because international corporate sponsors like Coca Cola were not propping up the games. But I’m not sure how or if this would help any of the citizens of Russia whose lives are being affected by Russian government policies. Is a pro-LGBT Coca Cola ad during the NFL Super Bowl enough to make a different kind of statement?
Ultimately, while I struggle with the question of the Olympic games in Sochi, I am much more certain about what needs to happen after Sochi. The media attention must not go away. The corporate sponsors must not stop demonstrating their explicit support for a diverse and inclusive society. And when, (and I’m sorry that I believe it is more of a when than an if) we hear that LGBT Russians are seeking asylum from prosecution and fear of death in their native land, we must ensure that they have a safe place to go and are welcomed here and in all countries who have declared their support and concern for LGBT lives in Russia while supporting the Sochi games.
I love watching the Olympics. This summer, I even watched reruns for a week after the games were over as my entertainment while I exercised. Watching the athletes’ amazing prowess motivated me to go faster and longer and stronger.
What is it that so fascinates us about the Olympic games? Why are we so gripped with emotion over who wins and who misses their moment?
Like other sports, the Olympics give us a vicarious surge of emotion for the effort, the competition, the feeling of winning. We imagine the athletes as extensions of ourselves. What a sense of accomplishment when our team or our favorite athlete wins!
But it does not stop there. Some of us try to get there. Even knowing that almost all of us will never reach professional heights, many still try. I am talking about team sports for kids. When I was a kid, team sports were about the game. We took the competition in stride, while learning sportsmanship – in playing, in winning and in losing. While a spirit of competition drove us, it didn’t define us.
I think things have changed dramatically since my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s. Today the attachment to sports among many of our kids is much more serious and intensely competitive, and often not about “play.” It is about winning. It is about performance. That’s not bad if it is a part of a child’s identity formation. It can surely boost a child’s self esteem.
While in a previous era most kids developed their identity through their religious community and extended family, today sports can take center stage. Perhaps that’s an indictment on religious communities and our ability to be a compelling force in the lives of emerging young people. But it is also a comment on the values of our culture and its priorities.
Today, the coach often plays the clergy role as an authority and guide. The power of coaches in dictating schedules and priorities for families is stunning. My generation reveled in the insistence of baseball player Sandy Koufax that he not play on Yom Kippur when he would have pitched for the first game of the 1965 World Series. He was our hero.
Times have changed. In today’s culture, sports routinely take precedence over religious school, Shabbat and holidays. Many kids and parents worry about being left out of games or even the team if they miss practices or games. Today’s heroes win on the field, and rarely by declining to participate.
But coaches and games, no matter how good, can’t help us with core questions of life the way our religious traditions can – as a foundation for our whole lives.
We need to get back to a better balance – where religious schools, which have mostly become quite nimble at adapting to the sports-conflict phenomenon, provide experiences so compelling that it would be harder to miss it. But more — coaches also need to understand that other activities are equally important to a child’s development. Coaches and parents need to teach their kids perspective – the game is just a game. Life – that’s a different matter. Four thousand years of Jewish tradition offer an inheritance that teaches us to live a life that matters. That takes practice and coaching too.