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Why I'm Not Watching the Sochi Olympics
My boycott may not change the world, but it's the only economic decision I can live with. Consumers do have some power
The Sochi Olympics have barely started, but their beginnings are, to say the least, inauspicious. Besides the alarming problems on the women's downhill skiing and men's slopestyle snowboarding courses, threats of avalanches and potential terrorism and widespread complaints from journalists about dubious plumbing, the political and moral underpinnings of the games are falling apart. There are vocal protests of Russia's highly objectionable recent rules shutting down gay rights, its longtime battle with free speech, using poison darts for the mass killing of stray dogs, and allegations of environmental abuses.
This may seem like the way of the world; Beijing is hardly a safe space for human rights or free speech, and the shouts about the abuses there were not very loud. Political controversies and the Olympics are old friends. Protests and boycotts are nothing new to these games. Ban-ki Moon of the United Nations has spoken out against Russia's abuses, and enough foreign leaders have sworn to skip the games that Thomas Bach, head of the International Olympic Committee, slammed them for the "ostentatious gesture" and the harm to Olympic headlines. These boycotts also may not work. To many of us, without the power of world leaders, there's nothing to do but sigh, turn on the TV, and look past the atrocities to the games themselves.
But we have power too: the power of the dollar, the power of our eyeballs and viewership. The International Olympic Committee is selling us to sponsors and television networks; they are making a very big bet that we will show up. The networks have spent billions over the years for the Olympics. The IOC sold the 2012 rights to NBC for $1.2bn. NBC paid $775m for the rights to the Sochi Olympics.
But what if we don't show up? Suddenly, the financial picture changes. That is the power that consumers have.
This year, to me, it seems like a mistake to ignore the human principles that are being trampled under the snow in Sochi. Many of the abuses in Russia – against gay rights, against the environment, against animals – came after the Olympic contract, almost as if Russian leaders were emboldened by the Olympic imprimatur and financing to not only continue abuses, but create new ones.
That's not surprising. The arrival of the Olympic money into Russia may have been seen as a giant international stamp of approval. Money is not just something you spend on goods and services; it is a persuasive force that reveals what people support through their dollars. And the thing about profit is this: it has a way of making people believe they're right. The more profit that comes in, the more "rightness" a business or country assumes. Profit is to capitalism what moral good is to religion: the best and highest metric of success.
That's why, this year, it seems like a mistake to ignore the fact that the Olympics are not just a soaring tribute to the nobility of the human spirit; they are a multibillion-dollar business that thrives on a complex international system of trade for everything from merchandising to naming rights to brand partnerships. In this mix, one thing becomes clear: the Olympics are a financial effort that require consumers to play along.
That demand to play along, to be quiet and hand over our dollars and hours is an onerous one this year. It requires a lot of hypocrisy from both sponsors and viewers. As we celebrate athletes overcoming obstacles to reach their dreams, we are giving our financial support to the International Olympic Committee for rewarding a foreign government known for its extreme corruption and human rights abuses. As we support the Olympics' message to young athletes that nothing can stop them, we are approving of a system that tells gay athletes their lives are worthless.
The brands supporting the Olympics are some of the most well-liked and successful in the world: Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble, Panasonic, Visa. They are no strangers to controversy and each have faced protests, activism and boycotts in the past.
But those brands are heavily represented at Sochi, for one reason: to get viewers, which will presumably bring them sales. The Sochi Olympics, which are costing Russia over $50bn, have built a very strict financial regime that doesn't even allow athletes to endorse brands that are not paying to be sponsors or partners of the event.
The companies want viewers for their ads and their logos. To get those viewers, the companies are presumably fine with supporting a system in which gay athletes are considered lawbreakers because of their identities, in which a Black Sea resort town is torn up environmentally to make room for an enormous global event, and in which dogs are indiscriminately killed because their presence makes Sochi less elegant to Western eyes. None of those things look good in glossy advertisements; their existence depends on consumers looking the other way, choosing glamor over reality.
It's not surprising. Often, that's a safe bet. People don't stop buying gas because of something like the BP oil spill, or stop eating food because of genetically modified soybeans taking over our agricultural supply. It seems unfair, somehow, to not watch athletes simply because they're forced to compete in a country that violates moral principles. Those athletes didn't award the IOC contract to Russia.
I feel bad for the athletes, particularly the gay ones, who will be treated as second-class citizens in a country that has explicitly said it doesn't people with their identity around. But I also wonder how many of them wish the IOC had placed the Olympics elsewhere, and simply don't have the financial ability or political pull to say so. Some of them are likely waiting for consumers and world leaders to do that talking for them.
That's why, as Olympics viewers, we should be paying more attention to what we are supporting with our viewer time and dollars. If we believe in free speech, gay rights, and animal rights, we are also taking a leap of hypocrisy this year when we suppress our principles to the glory of pomp and circumstance – bread and circuses, to quote the old Latin phrase. When we watch the Olympics and boost viewership, when we buy more products from their sponsors and adding to the all-consuming money machine of the Olympics-industrial complex, we are using our money to vote – and that vote is "yes" to human rights abuses. It's a "yes" to denying gay athletes their rights. When we use our financial power, we are using it to make a political statement.
We mostly ignore that. This year, we should ask: is that political statement – that any abuse is fine as long as we have the right kind of sports spectacle – the message we want to send?
For me, it's not. I do know that I, as a consumer, care enough about the real message of the Olympics that I can't celebrate the feats of athletes knowing that the attention and money they bring are being used to silence others.
Consumer power is a very real fear to most financial entities, whether they're companies, banks, or the Olympics. A lot of very uncomfortable, unprincipled moral compromises are made in business because leaders believe that consumers will never notice or never care how they make their profits. Sometimes, they're right. Sometimes they're wrong.
I don't know which will be the case this year – whether Sochi will be the most-watched Olympics or the least-watched. But I do know that, as hard as it will be, I will make sure that my attention, and money, line up with my values. In this case, that means I won't be watching the Olympics. It may not change the world, but for me, it's the only economic decision I can live with.