The Winter Olympics are scheduled to begin in a little over six months in Sochi, Russia. But as the event draws near, athletes who have trained their entire lives for a chance to win Olympic gold find themselves in a difficult, and perhaps risky, situation. Human rights and LGBT activists are calling for the Games to be relocated or boycotted while Russia is standing firm on its draconian anti-gay laws.
If there was any question about Russia's stance on gay rights, President Vladimir Putin just signed into law a bill which outlaws "homosexual propaganda," making public events that promote gay rights and public displays of affection by same-sex couples illegal. Heavy fines are imposed for providing information about homosexuality to people under 18.
June 11, 2013: During a ''Kissing Day'' protest against a bill banning homosexuality, protesters in Moscow were attacked by hundreds of anti-gay activists and then detained by police. (Image: © Valery Sharifulin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMAPRESS.com)
I've certainly seen many reports of LGBT Russians being kidnapped, bullied, even killed. Buzzfeed recently published photos of LGBT people being violently beatenby anti-gay protesters and police. These are images that everyone needs to see.
Last week, politician and author of the country's anti-gay legislation, Vitaly Milonov, warned that athletes and supporters attending Russia’s 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Gamescould face prosecution or arrest. Russia’s sports minister confirmed that the country intends to enforce its laws against visiting LGBT athletes, trainers and fans.
And that's when all hell broke loose.
Russia’s oppression, discrimination, and pro-violence stance towards its LGBT community is in direct violation of the International Olympic Committee’s non-discrimination policy. The IOC’s fundamental principles include an unequivocal statement:
The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
But it appears Russia isn’t listening, and indeed has raised the stakes by threatening arrests. Last month, the IOC said it would "work to ensure that the Games can take place without discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media. "
May 30, 2013: Russia's President Vladimir Putin and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge (L-R) examining Sochi 2014 Olympics medals at the Lenexpo exhibition center. (Image: © ITAR-TASS/ZUMAPRESS.com)
But here is where it gets really messy. Jere Longman of the New York Times points out that just as Russia now prohibits “propaganda” in support of “nontraditional” sexual orientation, the Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the Winter and Summer Games. So on the one hand, athletes face prosecution by the Russians for advocating for gay rights. On the other, they face banishment by Olympic officials for publicly opposing Russia’s discriminatory new law.
President Obama, who was in Los Angeles Tuesday (don't get me started on traffic snarls created by his visit) appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno last night and addressed the issue this way:
I've been very clear that when it comes to universal rights, when it comes to people's basic freedoms, that whether you are discriminating on the basis of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, you are violating the basic morality that I think should transcend every country,
Obama went on to say that Russia's treatment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people goes against the spirit of the Olympics (let's ignore for the moment the fact that he confused the Summer and Olympic Games) and he believes Russia should respect gay rights. He stopped short of calling for a boycott but he did announce on Wednesday that he was cancelling an upcoming one-on-one meeting with President Putin.
On the other side of the pond, British broadcaster Stephen Fry has called for an “absolute ban” on the Russian Winter Olympics, warning that the country’s persecution of gay people would stain the Olympic movement forever.
In an open letter to Prime Minister David Cameron and the IOC, Fry (who is gay and Jewish) compares Sochi 2014 to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and likens President Vladimir Putin’s “barbaric” discrimination of LGBT Russians to Hitler’s treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany.
Fry said Putin was repeating Adolf Hitler's "insane crime" of persecuting a minority within his country - only this time it is gay people rather than Jewish people who are the targets. "An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 on Sochi is simply essential. At all costs Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilised world," he said.
Activist and actor George Takei, best known for the original Star Trek series, is also being vocal about the issue. He is calling for the Sochi 2014 Olympics to move to Vancouver.
NBC, which paid $775 million to broadcast the Sochi Games, along with the corporate sponsors of the Olympics, should pay close attention. If the Winter Olympics proceed in Sochi, there is a high likelihood that the event will evolve into noisy protests, boycotts, and negative publicity. And if NBC journalists on location address the issue of homosexuality, they face the potential of prosecution under the new Russian law.
So here we are again: an Olympics on the horizon, another host country with recently legislated laws persecuting a group of people.
There have been urgent calls for boycotts of the Olympics, as well as of Russian exports like vodka. But a boycott of Russian vodka isn’t going to effect the kind of change needed. Besides, with Russia’s confirmation that it will enforce its law, LGBT athletes are in real danger.
In contrast to the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2012 London Games, there will be no Pride House in Sochi to serve as a meeting point and informational hub for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender athletes.
The last time the Olympics supported this sort of intolerance... six million Jews ultimately died. Russia should not be able to benefit from the prestige of holding the Olympic games while responsible for such despicable treatment. What is abundantly clear is that we can't keep looking the other way just because we want to "stay out of it."
Not long ago, the IOC pressured Muslim countries to allow female athletes to compete at the Olympics, or risk being banned for violating the Olympic anti-discrimination creed. At the 11th hour, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Brunei sent female delegates.
There is currently a petition on Change.org addressed to IOC President Jacques Rogge, demanding the Olympics be relocated to Vancouver, which played host in 2010. The petition has 40,000 signatures as of mid-day Wednesday. A Facebook group calling for a Sochi boycott has nearly 30,000 likes.
The IOC rules clearly state that if Russia will not abide by the rules, they should forfeit the right to host the games. However it’s unlikely that the Sochi Games will actually be relocated -- and a boycott would punish athletes who have trained for years.
May 30, 2013: Presentation of medals of the 2014 22nd Winter Olympics at the Lenexpo Exhibition Complex, St. Petersberg. In picture: Russian State Duma Deputy Svetlana Zhurova. (Image: © Russian Look/ZUMAPRESS.com)
So what to do? Instead of sitting out the 2014 Olympics should athletes wave rainbow flags during the Opening and Closing ceremonies (and risk mass arrest)? Can you imagine entire national teams marching in and out of the ceremonies with flags and rainbow pins?
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