Russia has embarked on a series of shameful steps against homosexuals. A recently passed law lays out heavy penalties for anyone who disseminates positive information to minors about "nontraditional" relationships, a vague law that could be construed to mean that a gay couple holding hands in public would be in trouble if children were present. Another law bans adoptions not just by homosexuals but by anyone living in a country that confers marriage rights on gay and lesbian couples.
These laws should be denounced by leaders everywhere. And if consumers worldwide decide not to indulge in Russian vodka as a form of economic protest, that's fine too. But Russia's homophobic actions, dismaying as they are, should not become the basis for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi.
Violations of human rights are unfortunately too common in too many countries. China is among them, which didn't stop it from successfully hosting the Games in 2008. Even the United States wouldn't necessarily be exempt from calls for boycotts; the death penalty, for example, has been abolished in almost all European nations as a human rights violation.
Boycotts are a time-honored way for individuals and consumer groups to pressure companies or governments to change their ways. But governments and official organizations such as the International Olympic Committee should tread far more carefully lest every major event becomes subject to boycotts and counter-boycotts.
In 1980, the United States shunned the Summer Games in Moscow — and how many of us remember that it was over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, a country now occupied by American forces? It didn't change Soviet policy. Four years later, the Soviet Union led a boycott of the Summer Games in Los Angeles, a move that was widely interpreted as retaliation. Athletes and the Games themselves suffered as a result. By contrast, American participation in the Berlin Games of 1936 showcased the abilities of Jesse Owens and other black athletes, and undermined Hitler's hope of using the event as a display of Aryan superiority.
There is one thing, though, that the IOC must secure from Russia before going ahead: The government there must ensure that athletes are protected from these repressive laws during the Games. No legal action can be allowed against athletes who openly state their sexual orientation or who kiss a same-sex partner after winning a medal. The Olympic competition is held on an international stage, no matter where it happens to be. Russia can make its own Dark Ages laws, but it cannot set policy for the modern Olympiad.