Hockey Needs to Be the Centerpiece for Protest at the Sochi Olympics

08/14/2013 06:02 pm ET

It is absolutely imperative that the world not remain silent about the viciously homophobic legislation and policies pursued by the Putin government and, alas, its considerable support among important institutions (such as the Russian Orthodox Church) as well as in public opinion. And nothing will provide a more potent global forum for such opposing voice than the Winter Olympics in Sochi in February 2014. A boycott would not only be unfair to athletes in the vast majority of sports comprising these (or any) Olympics that only possess these quadrennial games as their showcase to a larger public; but it is completely unrealistic in that all established institutions that have heavily invested in these Olympics, from the governments of nation states to their sports federations; from NBC to the IOC would fight such a boycott tooth and nail and thus prevail. Additionally, such a boycott would be an exit from the fight, not an engagement with it.

Instead, a better strategy would be to target the most visible sports that attract the largest global audience and in which attaining medals truly matters for many millions well beyond the athletes and the smaller coterie of inside aficionados that all sports possess. Of course curling is crucial for Canadians; Nordic skiing very important for Scandinavians; speed skating decisive for the Dutch; and short-track skating essential for the South Koreans. There are many other sports with similar importance that remain, however, confined in terms of the passion and interest that they generate. However, I see three sports with overarching viewership that are the event's true showcases: downhill (or Alpine) skiing; figure skating; and ice hockey. Just imagine what an amazing statement it would be were glamorous and beautiful Lindsey Vonn, having regained her full health and thus once again becoming one of the greatest skiers (male or female) of all-time, to sport some image of the LGBT flag on her track suit when being handed one of her medals. Ditto for some of the figure skaters!

But nothing would surpass the expressive power of ice hockey, arguably the most macho sport in the winter games; but also in which success is the most coveted among some key participating countries, none more so than host Russia. While it is perhaps asking too much of Russian stars like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin or Pavel Datsyuk to confront their country's government by protesting its homophobic policies with some sort of statement (on second thought; why not expect this of them? After all, it was American track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos that protested American racism rather than leaving this up to athletes representing other nations. Then again, their protest did not happen with the United States being the games' host.). However, it most decidedly is not too much to ask of star hockey players representing Canada, the United States, Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic, with Russia, the world's most prominent powers in ice hockey, to lend their voice to some kind of protest action.
And here we have a fine possibility of entrance via the National Hockey League's immensely progressive and highly commendable "You Can Play" project which, established 16 months ago, has as it goal the eradication of homophobia in all athletic endeavors. In an article authored by Adam Proteau, writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com https://www.google.com/search?source=ig&rlz=1G1GGLQ_ENUS333&q=adam+proteau%2C+nhl%2C+nhlpa+partnership&oq=Adam&gs_l=igoogle.1.0.35i39j0i20l2j0l7.28641.29154.0.32091.4.4.0.0.0.0.98.335.4.4.0...0.0...1ac.1.12.igoogle.bzc28pDTrT8 we learn how all key parties in the League, its commissioner, its players, the NHL Players' Association's executive director, and most important thousands of hockey fans have joined this inclusive endeavor honoring Brendan Burke who received overwhelming support from his teammates at Miami University after he informed them that he was gay in 2009. Tragically, Brendan lost his life in a car accident in February of 2010. As Proteau writes, "the big shift is that this is a professional sports league saying not that, 'We tolerate you,' not that, 'We'll deal with this if we need to,' but that they're inviting us in. It's exciting."

Since virtually all important players on all of the Big Six hockey countries' teams at the Sochi Olympics will hail from the NHL, it would really behoove this league to exert some pressure on these countries' ice hockey federations to do something in protest of Russia's homophobic laws and policies. I have no idea what such measures could be beyond the wearing of the LGBT flag on the players' sweaters. I am sure that there are many other visual options as well as possibilities of protest. After all, let us not forget that the countries involved in such a collective action - Sweden, Finland, Canada, the Czech Republic and the United States -- comprise some of the most liberal and enlightened in the world concerning tolerance of minorities, gays and lesbians in particular.

Here's to hoping that the National Hockey League will realize the immense voice that it has in this important matter and that it will choose some means to make it heard.

With Emily Albertson, Andrei S. Markovits is the author of SPORTISTA: FEMALE FANDOM IN THE UNITED STATES published by Temple University Press.