A conversation starter

February 7 is the opening day of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Traditionally, nations have put aside their differences, toned down their mutual antagonistic rhetoric and come together to celebrate the accomplishment of some of the world’s best athletes. For their part, the athletes have trained, some for years and years, to win a spot on the coveted Olympic team and take their shot at getting a gold medal.

 The Olympics, however, are no stranger to controversy and political agendas.

– Athletes have been stripped of their medals when it is discovered, even if years later, that they violated Olympic rules. American runner Marion Jones was stripped of all of the medals she won in the 2000 Summer Olympics after she admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.

– Athletes have found ingenious ways to cheat. In 1972, a member of the Soviet modern pentathlete competition used an epee with a modified handle that would register a hit, even a false one, when a button in the pommel was pushed.

– Nations have boycotted the Olympics in protest of the host country’s policies or actions (In 1976, 22 African nations boycotted the games after New Zealand’s soccer tour of South Africa. In 1980, the US led a boycott of the Moscow games to protest the Russian invasion of Afghanistan and in 1984, Russia “retaliated” by leading a boycott of the Los Angeles games, although the official reason given was lack of security for their athletes.)

– A nation’s athletes have been banned for policies of their government. In 1964, South Africa was suspended from competing due to their nation’s policy of apartheid. The suspension wasn’t lifted until 1992.

– Individual athletes have used the Olympics as a platform to bring awareness to social issues such as the racial discrimination. Two American runners, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, gave the “Black power” salute during the 1968 medal award ceremony.

– Terrorists have struck at the Olympics, most recently in 1972 when 11 athletes, coaches and judges from Israel were murdered by Palestinian terrorists.

– Judges have been known to play favorites. In the 1988 games held in Seoul, South Korean boxer Park Si-Hun was declared the winner despite being pummeled by his American opponent, who landed 86 punches to Park’s 32.

– Judges have also been known to “trade votes.” The French judge in the 2002 figure skating competition supposedly admitted to voting for the Russian pair to win so that the Russian judge would vote for the French pair in ice dancing.

– Athlete’s personal views, opinions and comments, when expressed on social media, have been known to get them into trouble. In 2012, Greek suspended their female triple jumper after she made what many consider a racial post on Twitter and Switzerland expelled one of their soccer players for a racist and threatening post on Twitter.

Now a new controversy has arisen. Earlier this year, the Russian government enacted a very strict, discriminatory and dangerous law against any sort of “propaganda” that condones or encourages minors to view nontraditional sexual relations as equal to traditional sexual relations. The law is vaguely worded and does not define either “propaganda” or “nontraditional sexual relations,” so there is very real potential that both athletes, their family members, support staff and coaches, commentators and camera crews as well as foreign attendees to the Sochi Olympics may find themselves locked up in a Russian prison for violation of the law and face fines, imprisonment and/or deportation.

It is clear that the law is having a very negative and dangerous, even deadly, effect on gay Russian citizens. Transgendered and gay Russians have been severely beaten, tortured and raped and many of the attacks have been filmed, some even finding their way onto YouTube. (Why anyone would want to watch such a video is beyond me. I do not need to witness the terrorizing of another human being to know that it occurs.) At least one gay man has died from the injuries he sustained during one of these attacks.

Human rights groups the world over are outraged at this development so near to the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Many are calling for a boycott of the Sochi games. Others are calling for the banning of Russian athletes from the games, much as South Africa was banned from participation for endorsing apartheid.

The problem is that if Russian athletes are banned because of the Russian government’s attitude towards gays, American and Ugandan athletes (among others) would also have to be banned since both those governments also have discriminatory laws against gays on their books. (Given the recent changes in laws in the US, it may come down to banning athletes from specific states that still have DOMA laws on the books.)

For its part, the IOC said it has received assurances from Russia that foreign athletes, coaches, commentators, crews and tourists will not be targeted and will be safe. The IOC has no plans to change the games’ location or ban Russian athletes.

How should we as individuals concerned with the spiritual evolution of humanity respond to this situation? When I mentioned the call to boycott to a co-worker, s/he replied that the Olympics should not be politicized. That the focus should be on the athletic competition. I countered that to do nothing would be tacitly endorsing the discrimination. In response, I was asked, “If someone punches you in the face and you turn the other cheek, are you tacitly endorsing violence?” Isn’t turning the other cheek what you do if you profess to support nonviolence?

Initially, I didn’t know how to respond because I do believe in non-violence. I also agree that the Olympics should not be used as a political platform and that athletes shouldn’t have to pay for the actions of their governments. I also believe in turning the other cheek, which I take to mean not retaliating in kind. If someone acts out of fear or loathing or even hatred towards me, I do not respond with anger or return the hatred or fear. (That doesn’t mean I allow myself to be “used” as a doormat either!) So I pondered the “pros” and “cons” of the major proposed responses: boycott the games, ban Russian athletes or allow the games to go on as scheduled.

The Russian government stands to make millions of dollars from hosting the Olympics. A boycott of the Olympics would most certainly be felt in all sectors of Russian society. The money has already been spent to build the venues and the accommodations for the athletes and coaches. This is money that, one way or another, came straight from Russian citizens. But can the Russian citizens be held accountable for the policies of their government when there is no way to accurately gauge if the citizens support the policy? (The actions of a violent-prone minority most certainly do not represent the opinions of the entire citizenry any more than the actions of a few Islamic terrorists on 9/11 represent all Muslims.) On the other hand, doing nothing could be viewed as tacitly supporting the oppressive laws.

And then there’s the athletes. For some, this may be their only chance at competing in the Olympics. Is it fair to ask them to give up a life-long dream when it’s not yet clear how this law is going to impact gays in the long run? (Remember, sometimes all it takes is a spark to ignite a raging inferno and this may be the spark that ignites the Russian citizenry to stand up for human rights!) Furthermore, similar national laws have, in the past, been voided because of the very vagueness that makes them so dangerous and threatening. By banning certain athletes, are we not also politicizing the Olympics? Retaliating in kind? NOT turning the other cheek?

I was getting nowhere. Thinking myself in circles (as I often do!) So I took a couple deep breaths, looked inside and decided to take a look at this through the lens of Love.

Right and wrong/good and bad are all relative to the contextual field in which they’re found and according to the beliefs and perceptions of each individual. No one acts inappropriately given their view of the world. No one is a victim. There are no villains. Everyone is a co-creator of their reality: distorted, observed or actual.

It cannot be denied that the Russian anti-gay laws have brought the issue of equality for gays to the forefront in a way that has allowed people all over the world to witness the injurious effects of discrimination and the damage caused by the belief in superiority and separateness. The horrific videos have made the abstract idea of “torture” something very real and, to many, unacceptable. The faces of the young teens being harassed by Russian skin heads personalize this hatred and fear and many adults looking at this are thinking “That could be my child!” They begin to see themselves in others.

This provides an opening for a new conversation on what it means to be a human being and why we believe what we believe about being separate from each other and from Life/Love/God. The Olympic platform provides a stage in front of a world-wide audience in which that new conversation can be carried on. A way in which the message of Love/Life/Freedom/Goddess can be seen and heard by billions! Let us honor the sacrifice of our Russian brothers and sisters by having that conversation, even if it’s just with the guy sitting next to us at the bar while we watch the giant slalom or the woman next to us on the bus whose reading about the figure skating results or just with our own children. Let us help them remember the 25th core message given to us by God/dess: We are all One! Ours is not a better way. Ours is merely a different way.

(Shelly Strauss is a civil rights activist and speaker.  In addition to becoming an ordained minister, she has written 20-plus novels and is the “resident visionary” at One Spirit Project.  Shelly is also a spiritual helper on the ChangingChange website, offering support and guidance to people faced with unexpected and unwelcome change .)

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