German President Joachim Gauck told Der Spiegel this week that he will not be attending the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia in reaction to the nation’s oppression of political opposition. With talk of boycotts and protests surrounding the Games, who might follow Gauck’s lead?
Gauck, whose office is in large part symbolic under the more active power of Chancellor Angela Merkel, told the German newspaper that he “did not want his cancellation interpreted as disapproval of his country’s athletes” but as a disapproval of the Russian government. Gauck has yet to visit Russia despite attending a number of Olympic games in his career and made his boycott declaration a broad one against political oppression–this in contrast to many who have called for a boycott specifically against Russia’s “gay propaganda” law that bans pride parades and any public information about LGBT people.
Gauck becomes the first major international political figure to bow out of the games, and while Merkel has spoken against boycotting the Games on the athletes’ behalf, her presence there is as of now unconfirmed.
The Russian government almost immediately reacted to the slight. As the Associated Press reports, the head of the lower house of the Duma, Alexei Pushkov, tweeted condemning Gauck’s move as hypocrisy when “Gauck never condemned the killing of children and women in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Gauck’s boycott raises once again the question of whether boycotting the Olympics is the optimum way to raise awareness and condemn the abuses of the Russian government. In so doing, Gauck also places the ball in the court of every other world leader who claims to support human rights and who has been outspoken against the keeping of political prisoners and silencing of opposition in Russia.
Gauck is taking a stand against a regime guilty of a litany of violations. According to a 2012 report from the U.S. State Department, Vladimir Putin’s government faces, among other violations, “allegations of torture and excessive force by law enforcement officials; life-threatening prison conditions; interference in the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; abridgement of the right to privacy; restrictions on minority religions; widespread corruption; societal and official intimidation of civil society and labor activists; limitations on the rights of workers; trafficking in persons; attacks on migrants and select religious and ethnic minorities; and discrimination against and limitation of the rights of lesbian, gay,bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons.”
As a leader of a free Western nation, Gauck certainly must have felt the pressure to take a stand against these violations. He must also, as many leaders who have discussed the matter have noted, have taken into account the need to provide athletes with the opportunity to shine in the world’s greatest arena.
Having world leaders– and not athletic teams– boycott the Games comes closest to a win-win situation for human rights. Of those supporting the athletes’ right to participate in the Games, figure skater Johnny Weir has articulated the reasons against making the athletes step away from the competition the best: “People make their own futures, and should a government or sponsor steal that future… it is, as an athlete, the death and total demolition of a lifetime of work.” The only people hurt by a country refusing to send their athletes to compete are the athletes.
But their presence at the Olympics Games does not require that of their country’s leaders, the only truly political figures with a place at the table for the Olympics. Gauck’s absence in Sochi will not hurt the German Olympic team, but it will send the right message: Germany will not stand for Russia’s human rights abuses, and refuses to engage politically with a regime behaving illegitimately.
It also sends the message that Germany respects its athletes enough to not deny them a chance at global superstardom because of political abuses far out of their hands. Judging from Russia’s reaction, it stings just as much for them.