You may have heard about the anti-LGBT laws passed last month in Russia, which criminalize gay “propaganda.” You may specifically have heard about these laws in reference to next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics. Sochi is in Russia, and some advocates believe that athletes (as well as other Russian institutions) should boycott the games to protest the laws. Not every activist agrees on that point, but either way, in a sports world that is increasingly LGBT-friendly, the Russian laws — and the wisdom of rewarding a civil rights-hostile country with a prestigious prize like hosting the Olympics — will continue to be a huge issue.
A huge issue — but perhaps only a small preview of what’s coming. The Winter Olympics are a relatively minor sporting event, and these repressive laws were passed recently enough as to make the idea of moving the Olympics impractical. But Russia is set to host the World Cup in 2018. And the World Cup after that is slated to take place in Qatar, where homosexuality is punishable by seven years in prison. Those will be much larger events than Sochi in terms of worldwide audience, in-person attendance, and scope. The Olympics are a two-week event in one location, but World Cups last a month and take place in several cities at once. That means fans and players spending more time in more places.
Which gets at perhaps the central problem that Russia and Qatar have, and a way in which their events could differ from past Olympics and World Cups held under politically controversial circumstances. Because political controversy itself is nothing new for global competitions, of course. Critics of the decisions to hold the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa had plenty to complain about in China’s human rights and labor records and the South African government’s decision to spend huge sums on stadium construction and other preparation in a country with serious poverty issues. The mothers of “disappeared” and murdered dissidents protested in public when Argentina’s military regime hosted the 1978 World Cup. The USSR and United States were considered inappropriate Olympic hosts in 1980 and 1984, and boycotted by giant and mutually exclusive blocs of world governments.
What all those political issues had in common, from Beijing to Los Angeles, is that they did not present any imminent threat to the well-being of athletes or spectators. When the Chinese, American, Argentinian and Soviets acted as hosts, they downplayed their own internal conflicts and charmed their guests. They were trying to win the respect of international visitors, even those from countries with hostile governments. The Cold War-era United States was happy to host Soviet athletes and citizens permanently if they so chose. The Chinese created an impressive, borderline-sublime mass spectacle of an Opening Ceremony as if to make a point to visitors about the benefits of subsuming oneself to society.
The official positions of Russia and Qatar toward LGBT rights make no room for charm or persuasion; a gay man visiting and making his identity known in either of those countries can simply be considered a criminal and prosecuted as such. Even a few years ago, this did not seem, to the relevant authorities in soccer’s governing body, to be a problem at all. (FIFA president Sepp Blatter, asked in 2010 about Qatar’s laws, answered glibly that gay World Cup fans should simply avoid having sex during their time in the country.) And why should it have? Not long ago the official laws of even a relatively LGBT-friendly country like the United States prohibited gays and lesbians from marrying or serving in the armed forces. The idea of a world-class gay athlete was only theoretical. To hide one’s identity for a month in Russia or Qatar — what’s so absurd about that, if Americans serving in the army had to do the same thing every day? The reasoning was disappointing, but understandable.
Things change, though, and in the case of LGBT rights in the U.S. they have changed quite rapidly. There are few remaining official corners of the American closet in any part of life; in sports, Jason Collins and Robbie Rogers have broken the taboo against active professional athletes discussing their sexual orientation; even the NFL, the most macho league of all, is creeping toward tolerance. The idea that there aren’t elite gay athletes is beginning to seem as absurd as the idea that there aren’t gay people everywhere, in every part of society.
But in Russia, with anti-LGBT violence rising and these new laws having just been passed, the paradigm is moving in the opposite direction. It might have been possible to imagine, a few years ago, a controlled two-week Winter Olympic interlude where anti-gay sentiment could be cravenly hidden. But two monthlong World Cups, with millions and millions of spectators coming from nations where LGBT openness has suddenly become the norm, spread out all over an increasingly intolerant Russia and Qatar for a month each? It is hard to picture this happening without dire, possibly violent conflict — and it’s even harder to picture it happening in 2022, when there will almost certainly be openly gay world-class soccer players participating in matches. Rather than a convergence or at least an uneasy comingling of values — which, if not the ideal of global competition, is at least a necessary condition for its existence, and what has generally happened in politically dicey circumstances in the past — we have two worlds moving further apart, one into the darkness, and one into the light. If anything good is to come from the Russian government’s recent inhumane behavior, perhaps it’s this: showing how much trouble we’re headed for in 2018 and 2022 while there’s still time to do something about it.