Human rights are winning

131211153209-sochi-protest-september-story-topFour years ago the Winter Olympics were in Vancouver, Canada. This was the one and only time that any Olympiad has been held in a city which allows gay marriage. The 2012 summer games were in London, where there are civil partnerships and legislation is proposed to bring in marriage this year or next. While there are many cities which have hosted the games with better records than Russia’s – London, Athens and Sydney stand out, Vancouver, Calgary Salt Lake City and Lillehammer for the winter games – Sochi is not the worst choice ever on human rights grounds. In terms of gay rights and other human rights, Beijing is a disaster zone. There is far more dissent in Russia today than there was when the summer games were held in Moscow.

In terms of human rights, the winter games would seem to have a better record than the summer, but this is just happenstance. Countries such as Canada and Norway were chosen for their meteorological, not their legal, climate. 

Why, then, have human rights, and gay rights in particular, suddenly become an issue in Sochi? What makes Russia so different from China in this regard? 

It is probably intimately linked to the fact that Russia’s human rights record did improve so much after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even though this progress has not all been lost, there is no doubt that Russia is presently going in the wrong direction. 

If the IOC were to exclude countries which have a bad record on human rights from participating in the games – or even just from hosting them – it would narrow the field enormously. Instead of being a global competition the Olympics would be focused on Europe and the European diaspora in North America and Oceania. A handful of countries which have been occupied and reconstructed by the West – Japan, and maybe South Korea, for example – would scrape in. The winter games – where the medal table is dominated by Canada, the US and various Alpine and Nordic countries – would be far less affected than the summer, in which almost all countries compete, and China and Russia are superpowers. 

This columnist has long been of the view that sport is overrated in its impact on politics and the economy, but its cultural impact is enormous. It is generally better to engage than not. Effectively abolishing the summer games and setting a new competition with decency entry criteria would probably not boost global human rights. 

Despite setbacks in Russia – and only compared with the 90s, not when compared with the 80s – human rights are doing rather well in the world. There have been huge gains Eastern Europe and Latin America in recent decades. The wealthier parts of Asia, including South Korea and Taiwan, have improved immensely. On the specific issue of gay rights, the standard against which we judge countries has changed. In this author’s lifetime we have moved from a world where there were just two standards – illegal, or legal but socially oppressed – to one where an increasing number of jurisdictions recognize gay marriage.  

As even the mightiest river rushes towards the ocean there will be occasional counter currents. In specific places, for brief periods, the water will flow backwards. But water presses onwards. Human rights are winning.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at


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