The Sochi Winter Olympics have come accompanied by a debate about LGBT treatment in Russia. This is not a unique phenomenon, either to sporting events or to LGBT as a community – for instance, the hosting of the Internet Governance Forum in Baku in 2012 spurred similar discussion about human rights issues in Azerbaijan.
Does associating internationally visible events with activism and rights causes actually make any difference? The usual answer takes the following format: “of course; [event] provides an important opportunity to shine the spotlight of public opinion on [issue] in [country]”. But does it? I have my doubts.
Principally, I think the “spotlight” analogy is flawed. It’s not a spotlight – it’s a lighthouse. The beam of light rests on that country and that issue briefly and then moves on, at the pace of whatever annual cycle the event in question follows. The next time it lights up a Winter Olympics, the one thing you can guarantee is that it won’t be in Sochi. The next time it lights up Sochi, it will be because soething else is happening there: something which may or may not be a focus for LGBT/human rights activism. The Games – and international media attention – may return at some future point, it may not. Similarly, all the signs are that once public and political attention moved on from Baku after the IGF, the suppression and rounding-up of dissidents, journalists and anti-government activists resumed its brutal course.
Mostly, the governments against whom rights activism is directed are, by definition, the ones least likely to be swayed by a brief flash of international visibility. For them, the simplest solution is simply to put a good face on it, sit tight, and wait for the lighthouse beam to move on, in the knowledge that there is no built-in review process. We may get one snapshot of them, on their best behaviour, but that short exposure is a one-off, not a baseline against which they will be held to account.
So, by all means grab media exposure while it’s available, but don’t be under illusions as to its capacity to effect sustainable change.