The Sochi Salute – Gestures can make a difference

I was 13 years old when the demonstration pictured here took place. Before it, while I was aware of the struggle for black human rights in the USA, I unthinkingly kind of accepted the standard ideas.

  • Martin Luther King = good, peaceful.
  • Black Power = bad, violent.

The quiet power and dignity of this protest by American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos had a big effect on me. The criticism and treatment they received when they got home also made me think. It was one of many steps that made me the wishy-washy liberal lefty you see before you. But I want to write a little about the third man on the podium and make some comments about the upcoming Russian Olympics.

That third man was Australian silver medallist Peter Norman. Before the medal ceremony Smith and Carlos told Peter Norman what they were planning and asked his opinion. He said he would stand with them and even donned a badge on the podium in support of their cause, the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR).

Norman was reprimanded by the Australian Olympic authorities and ostracised by the Australian media and, despite running many qualifying times for both the 100m and 200m did not go to the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

When the Olympics came to Sydney in 2000 Norman, despite still being the 200m Australian record holder, was not involved in any way by the Australian authorities. Ironically things had changed in America and they invited him to be part of the event on hearing that the Australians hadn’t. When Norman died in 2006 both Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral a gave eulogies.

I find this a moving story about a man who did his bit to support the dignified protest of others in support of human rights. An unsung hero who paid a high price in his sporting career but played his part in changing the minds of many all over the world. Including a 13 year old schoolboy long-jumper in Manchester.

So, we come to the 2014 Winter Olympics to be held in Sochi, Russia.

An unholy alliance of the Orthodox Church and a macho, reactionary government has lead to the enactment of appalling ant-gay laws in Russia. Officially the laws are not anti-gay, they merely outlaw the “propaganda of non traditional sexual relations”. This is so vaguely defined that it could be applied to anything from a full-on gay pride march to just holding hands, or just saying “yes I’m gay” in public. There is also evidence that the authorities are turning a blind-eye to anti-gay violence.

Because of this there is talk of a boycott of the games or moving them to a more LGBT friendly location. Get real, this is not going to happen.

If a boycott or relocation are out what about some kind of protest or symbol of solidarity and support for LGBT Russians. The IOC is making warning noises about athletes not making “political statements or demonstrations”. and seem to be specifically outlawing things like the rainbow flag or pin. Stephen Fry has floated the idea of what is being called the Sochi Salute. This would take the form of a gesture made by athletes when they are, for instance, collecting medals.

I love this idea, you can’t search anyone and confiscate a gesture, and the IOC and police would just make themselves look ridiculous if they tried to penalise people for making a gesture. Some have suggested that the gesture should be rude, or outrageously camp, but I think this is not the way to go. It should be very un-flamboyant, but unmistakable. This way there is a just a chance that many athletes, gay and straight, from many nations might be persuaded be like Peter Martin. To support their fellow human beings and to do their bit for human rights.

So please make it happen and keep it dignified.

After hearing about the Same Sex Hand Holding thing (see comment below) I think it would be great if the medallists just held hands on the podium. Perfect.

It wont change anything overnight but it might cause a few 13 year olds, in Russia and maybe in Uganda, Ethiopia, Gambia, Libya or any of the 76 countries where homosexuality is illegal, to think again, and later, if there are enough of them, they will change the world.

To see what others think use twitter hash-tags #SochiSalute and #Sochi2014

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1 Response to The Sochi Salute – Gestures can make a difference

  1. Dave Watts says:

    Since writing this I heard about the Same Sex Hand Holding Initiative. I reckon this is the perfect gesture. You can find out about it and support it here

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