Sunday, February 16, 2014

If I Were An Olympic Athlete, I'd Boycott Sochi for Killing Stray Dogs

History is replete with instances of sports and athletes breaking barriers, changing the way people think, and bringing people together in solidarity.  In 1926, Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, dispelling the notion that women were "the weaker sex."  In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier by becoming the first African American to play in a major league baseball game.  In 1954, Roger Bannister defied what were believed to be human limitations by becoming the first runner to break the 4-minute mile.  And in 2012, 78-year-old Harriett Anderson became the oldest woman to ever finish the Ironman World Championships in Kona Hawaii, which she did this after flying over a guard rail on her bike, injuring her shoulder.

These are just a few examples of how sports have defied expectations, pushed our limits, and caused a sea change in people's beliefs.

So why hasn't the killing of thousands of stray dogs in Sochi for the 2014 Olympics caused a similar sea change in how the world - or at least Americans - view and treat homeless dogs?  

You've probably heard by now about the thousands of homeless dogs that have been ordered to be killed by Sochi's City Hall.  The purported reason for this mass slaughter is "so they don't bother Sochi's new visitors."   I find this "justification" to be bullshit.  While there may be some health issues associated with homeless dogs (such as rabies) or random incidents, many people are reporting that most of these stray dogs are extremely friendly, affectionate, and healthy, as seen in these photos.

One of the dogs from The Scruffy Faces of Sochi website who looks like he could be really threatening...NOT!
So why is Sochi continuing their practice of killing as many homeless dogs as they can find, despite the city being in the limelight right now?  My speculation is that there are several reasons.

First, the homeless animal population in Sochi is out of control and, sadly, seems to be indicative of the problem throughout Russia.  In Moscow in 2012, it was estimated that there were tens of thousands of homeless dogs running Moscow's streets, with another 17,000 in private and state-owned shelters.  With such an overwhelming homeless animal population, the poisoning and shooting of massive numbers of homeless dogs is common practice in Russia.  Yes, that's correct:  Sochi and other Russian countries have been engaging in this type of mass killing of dogs for years.  Moreover, this is not a practice developed just for the Olympics, nor is it a practice specific only to Russia.  National Geographic reports that other countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, Kenya, Egypt, much of eastern Europe, and the Baltic countries have "mass dog-killing programs."  Moreover, the "stray dog problem" also was an issue in the Beijing and Athens Olympics.

Second, the vast majority of Russians don't have the mentality about dogs that Americans or other Westernized countries do, nor do they have the animal shelter infrastructure that we do in America.  One organization in Moscow - Moscow Animals - reports that "there are few western-style societies that aim to protect the interests of animals in Russia."  It seems that like many things in Russia, the few state-owned shelters that exist actually are rife with corruption and bribery.  

Third, Sochi officials apparently think it's easier to kill the dogs than to sterilize and vaccinate, or even to sponsor legislation that would fund a better shelter network.  Russia, like other countries with an extreme homeless animal population, doesn't have programs for the mass sterilization and vaccination of dogs.  Why?  Because killing them is less expensive and/or more efficient.  Interestingly, in April 2013, when it was first learned that Sochi would institute this mass killing to "beautify and sanitize" for the Olympics, the Humane Society of the United States offered to help Sochi with a mass sterilization and vaccination program to discourage the city from following through on their killing program.  Initially, Sochi agreed last year to forego their mass killing plan.  Clearly the Russian city didn't keep their word.

As a consequence of all the media coverage of Sochi's massive dog-killing program, Americans and others throughout the world have become outraged, with many people saying they will not watch the Olympics.  As an athlete and an animal lover, I have a bit of conflict or confusion over this move to boycott watching the Olympics on television.

Although I commend and respect the sentiment behind such an approach, I think it inadvertently hurts the athletes who have worked for years to compete in the Olympics, and is too passive of an approach.  First of all, neither Sochi nor the IOC cares if you sit in front of your t.v. and watch the Olympics.  Granted, I don't begin to understand the moneymaking aspect of the Olympics, but the only thing a boycott on television watching seems to do is hurt NBC's ratings, which has no impact on or relevance to Sochi's massive dog killing program.

Second, what such a boycott really does is weaken the support for American athletes.  Although I am not nor will I ever be an Olympic athlete, I have a good idea of what it means to commit yourself to an athletic goal, train hard for years, and pour your heart and soul into that goal.  These athletes have committed their lives to this one goal.  They have trained countless hours.  They have shed tears, blood, and sweat that could fill an ocean.  Their families and friends have stood behind them at every turn.  They've made extensive efforts to obtain fundraising and sponsors to support their journey.  If you are an American who loves sports, you must feel compelled to support these athletes through something so simple as watching them on t.v.  After all, isn't that what we Americans do when it comes to major sporting events?  Professional baseball and football players don't know that you are watching the World Series or SuperBowl to cheer them on.  But you know it, and you feel a certain solidarity with the rest of Americans who also are huddled up in front of their televisions to support our American athletes.  So while the athletes may not know that you are watching them on t.v., they know that their country as a whole is watching.

Third, boycotting the Olympics by not watching them on t.v. is too passive.  If you really want to have an impact, then be active.  Again, I completely understand the motivation and sentiment behind boycotting the television viewing of the Olympics and I respect that decision.  If, however, you really want to put some meat on the bones of your intention, then make your actions more active.   Find an organization to which you can donate to help save the Sochi dogs.  (I am not personally recommending any particular organizations here because I cannot vouch for their veracity, so that decision is left to your judgment).  Or, if you want your actions to have a more local impact, donate to or volunteer at a local shelter where you'll be able to see first-hand the impact your actions can have.

At any rate, taking some action is better than nothing.  And what may seem like small actions by just one person, can collectively create a significant impact.

Which leads me to wonder why more Olympians haven't taken a stand against this massive killing of homeless dogs.  These athletes have the world's attention right now, so think of the incredible impact they could have on the collective conscience of millions of people if individual athletes stood together to speak out against this horror.  It has warmed my heart to see athletes like American Olympian Gus Kenworthy and Russian Olympian Oleg Deripaska take a stand.  Kenworthy found a group of stray puppies and their mom, and immediately took to social media to announce that he'd brought them food and made vaccination appointments for them.  Even more inspiring is Deripaska, who reportedly is taking action to build shelters just five miles outside Sochi in Baranovka.

There's also former American Olympian Tom McMillan (1972 U.S. men's basketball team), who has written a letter to the IOC urging the governing body to intervene to stop the killing of Sochi dogs.

It's individuals like this who are using their status as current and former Olympians to stand up and bring awareness to this issue.  Individually and collectively, their actions are making a difference - both on the ground at Sochi and around the world as other individuals are inspired by their actions.

That's why I can say, with 100% confidence, that if I was an Olympian in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, I would boycott my event because of the government's decision to kill thousands of dogs and the IOC's blessing of that action.  Now granted, I will never qualify for the Olympics, so maybe that seems easy for me to say.  But not so fast.  Although I may never be an Olympian, I am an avid athlete and an even more avid animal lover and animal welfare activist.  So while I've never devoted the effort and resources to training for the Olympics, I have done so in training for other events like Ironman Arizona and Ironman Lake Tahoe.  I was fully committed to each of those events.  I'd poured my heart and soul into training for each of them.  I was obsessed with making sure that I finished each one and was determined not to fail.  And when I came so close to not making the bike cutoff for Ironman Lake Tahoe, I started to panic over the thought of being pulled from the race.  All those hours of training would be down the drain.  All the people who came to support me would be let down.  I would have done it all for nothing...(thankfully I did finish Ironman Lake Tahoe!).  

Yet, despite all of that, if I'd arrived in Tempe, Arizona or Lake Tahoe, and discovered that the Ironman Corporation had decided it needed to "clean up" the town by ridding it of any animals - dogs, cats, deer, birds, whatever...I would have refused to participate in the event that I'd devoted so many months, hours, blood, sweat, and tears to.


Because I would want to show the world how important the issue of animal welfare is to me; how important it is to be kind and compassionate to all living creatures; and how important it is to recognize that at the end of the day, no sporting event is worth killing any living creature.

I simply would not want to be a part of something that resulted in the massive death of any creature.  It's how I live my daily life, and I would expect nothing less of myself just because it's a "big race."  At every race I do, I show up hoping that on that day, I will be the best version of myself -- the strongest person I can be, both mentally and physically.  If I participated in an event that was the impetus for the massive killing of animals, I'd be turning my back on that.  I'd become the worst version of myself all in the name of that one event.  All in the name of my personal glory.

I wouldn't be able to look at myself in the mirror.

So instead, I'd want to send a message that no matter what the event or situation, your belief system should always be at the center of what you do.  Sometimes that will require you to make an awkward decision that may make you unpopular or the outcast.  But at the end of the day, if you compromise who you are, what kind of message are you sending?

I certainly don't expect any other athlete - professional or amateur - to feel the same way or take the same action.  Nor do I think that the Olympic athletes at Sochi have compromised who they are.  I just think that they could all send a much stronger message - one stronger than "what it takes to be an Olympic athlete" - if they stood up for creatures smaller than them.  These athletes who are on the world's center stage right now could stand together to send a message that homeless pets are an issue throughout the world - not just in Sochi - that can be addressed through spay/neuter programs, vaccinations, education, and better shelter systems rather than massive killing.  These athletes don't necessarily need to boycott their events - just standing up on a different podium to speak out against this injustice would be a wonderful step in the right direction.

The power these athletes have is the same power that Jackie Robinson had to change an entire country's view of African Americans.  It's the same power that Gertrude Ederle had to defy all notions of women's strength.  And it's the same power that Roger Bannister had to change all understanding of what the human body can accomplish.  These Olympians have the power to change the world's view on how to treat homeless pets.  These Olympians have the power to shed light on a homeless pet problem that permeates so many countries.  Yes, these Olympians - like Gus Kenworthy and Oleg Deripaska - have the power to teach people all over the world that compassion, love, and kindness should transcend all boundaries, including those of an Olympic sports pavilion.

I only hope that the world follows in Kenworthy's and Deripaska's steps and learns from these Olympics not only what it means to have the spirit of an Olympic athlete, but what it means to have the spirit of a compassionate human being....

What would you do if you were a Sochi Olympian?  

1 comment:

Lois Wye said...

Great post, Michele! Thanks for raising this issue from an athlete's perspective. It's been heartwarming to hear of some of the athletes bringing this issue into the spotlight, but I wish more would do the same. Meanwhile, there is a petition on asking the International Olympic Committee not to support these kinds of culls - as you note, this is not unique to Sochi so it is likely to happen at another Olympic venue, and this was done with the approval of the IOC. Here's a link to the petition:
Finally, I can't help but be reminded of the way we treat deer in this country - as if the only way to handle deer population is to kill them when they become inconvenient.