I was a figure skater for a hot second. When you’re a former gymnast and a former diver, and a dancer, and you live in a country so hot that meteorologists recently had to come up with a new color to accurately represent on their heat maps just how unpleasant summer can be, figure skating makes sense.
I wasn’t a particularly good figure skater, but what I lacked in talent, I made up for in… absolutely nothing. I was just not a particularly good skater, and no one but me was disappointed when injury ended what I’m sure would have been my wholly unillustrious skating career. But I’m still an avid viewer of skating, especially during the Winter Games, when skating is much easier to find on television than it is, well, ever.
The Sochi Games are less than weeks away, and the US national figure skating team has now been selected — not without some controversy over how very white the team, like the sport, is. And in any other year, I’d be psyched about the Winter Games. I’d be excited to watch slow-motion replays of jumps and to snark about gloriously hideous costumes and to watch pairs skaters defy death together in the kind of teamwork that puts entire Superbowl champion rosters to shame. I’d be excited to play the drinking game my skater friends and I developed (take a shot every time you spot a culturally offensive costume, take two, mostly out of misery, any time NBC’s cameras focus for an uncomfortably long time on the crotch of a teenage girl, take another any time a commentator makes a comment about a man’s “athleticism” that basically translates to “he doesn’t come off all that gay,” and so on).
Not this year. I just can’t. I can’t get excited about these Olympics, being held in a country that is hell bent on making the lives of its LGBT citizens unlivable.
As tickled as I am by the US using its selection of official delegates as a blatant “fuck you” to Russia’s new anti-gay laws, that can’t outweigh my disgust at the reports coming out of that country about how LGBT citizens are being systematically, chillingly oppressed. This is not to exonerate the country I live in, the US, or the country I call home, Australia, for their treatment of their own LGBT citizens. But each of those two countries is moving slowly — too slowly — toward granting full legal equality to gays and lesbians, at least (transgender people will, it appears, be left trailing, as is too often the case). Russia, on the other hand, is banning positive or even neutral portrayals of gay people and turning a blind eye to the anti-gay violence that law inevitably invites, taking a stand against western liberalism by making gays and lesbians a symbol of that liberalism. When I listen to Russian journalist Masha Gessen talk about her decision to leave Russia with her wife and children, for fear that the state might take her kids away from her if she stayed, it’s hard to pick my love for watching figure skating over my belief that oppressing LGBT people is, you know, really really wrong. It’s not exactly a tough calculation.
The question is, what do we do about it? As citizens of a hardly-blameless country, who want to reduce the amount of suffering, of oppression, of general misery in the world, but who aren’t in charge of deciding whether or not the Olympics go ahead, or whether or not the US sends athletes, or whether or not NBC broadcasts from Sochi, what do we do? How do we balance our desire to support our country’s best athletes in what is surely the pinnacle of their careers with the ethical obligation to extricate ourselves, as much as we can, from participating in the oppression of others?
Do we boycott NBC, or protest them, as several activists did this week? Do we pour Russian vodka into the gutters? Do we refuse to buy products from the many companies sponsoring the US Olympic team? Do we express our concern and our disgust in dollars, and donate to organizations working to support the Russian LGBT community? What if that’s not financially feasible for us?
Nancy Goldstein, an American journalist who has been covering the situation in Russia since the new laws were passed last summer, notes that it’s essential to keep the pressure on NBC and on other corporations who stand to profit from the Games. “I’ll be watching as much of the Olympics as a woman without a TV can,” Goldstein says. “But I’ll also continue to push NBC to cover Russia’s human rights abuses, continue to flame the International Olympic Committee for failing to follow their own charter, which should have compelled them to move the games elsewhere once Russia passed its anti-LGBT laws.” And, Goldstein says, we should continue to urge big-name Olympic sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Procter & Gamble, and Visa, “to show the world that the non-discrimination policies in their employee handbooks have no borders. Each company should post its non-discrimination policies prominently on its Russian websites… The statement should mention that the company encourages a safe and open work environment, welcomes LGBT customers and will not tolerate bullying of its LGBT employees.”
These aren’t idle questions, and they aren’t easy ones. As much as what’s happening in Russia harms real people in very real ways, for those of us watching from a distance, it invites a larger conversation about how to put our beliefs into action, and how to balance our principles with our inability to totally extricate ourselves from systems and institutions that violate those principles. If it’s not these Olympics, it’s Apple, or Amazon, or America itself, with its drones and its racism and its myriad other violations of our principles.
I watched US skating Nationals last weekend, and loved it. I shed actual tears watching Jason Brown skate his ponytailed heart out and get the whole arena, thousands of people, on their feet screaming for him. Figure skating, despite the sequins and the illusion netting and the occasional vote-trading scandal or metal pipe to the knee — or perhaps because of all those things — is a hell of a sport.
So perhaps I’ll still watch, but it probably won’t be on NBC. And perhaps I’ll play my drinking game (who are we kidding? Of course I’ll play my drinking game), but I won’t be playing it with Russian vodka.