As Travis Waldron has reported in our sports section, Russia’s crack-down on gay sexuality, including recent deportations of Dutch tourists, are a warning sign of what could be a significant problems for the Winter Olympic Games next year. Much as the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 took place in a country with rampant and long-standing human rights problems, some of which occurred as the city cleared space to build its Olympic stadiums, the Sochi games will occur in a place where the treatment of LGBT people illustrates the lack of an international consensus on the full humanity of the world’s gay citizens. In China, Bob Costas sharply questioned then-President George W. Bush about the host country’s human rights record. But questions remain about whether NBC would be up for a repeat performance.
At the Television Critics Association press tour on Saturday, Mark Lazarus, the chairman of NBC’s sports group attempted to head off questions about Russia’s homophobic laws and practices by suggesting that “We will address those issues as they are relevant at the time of the Games. As has always been done by NBC’s coverage, we will address those, again, as they are relevant at the time of the Games, and we cannot wait to get to Sochi.”
But what does that actually mean? When my fellow critics pushed Lazarus, he suggested that if Russia abides by its promise to the International Olympic Committee that its recent anti-gay legislation won’t be applied to athletes, tourists, or journalists who are visiting to participate in, observe, or cover the Games, the law might not be a news story.
“The IOC has addressed it with the Russian government and has assured athletes, fans, media that there will not be any issues regarding what takes place during the Games,” he said. “So we take the IOC that is watching this very closely and they’re monitoring this. We will address it if it becomes an issue. Right now they have a law that is the law of their land, and governments across the world have different laws, but as long as it doesn’t affect us or the athletes, we will again acknowledge that it exists, but I don’t know what it’s going to mean to us yet…If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympics Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it. We as a company, obviously, believe in equality, opportunity for all. We don’t believe that the Games are in the spirit of the law that they’ve passed, and we’re hopeful that the Olympic spirit will win out.”
I’m glad to hear Lazarus suggest that if the law is still on the books, it’ll be at least mentioned on air. But the suspension of the law for the Olympics, but not elsewhere in Russia, is in and of itself an important story. As Travis has been writing for months, one of the ways that FIFA and the IOC sell events like the World Cup and the Olympics to potential host countries is to suggest that they’re valuable engines of economic development. And just as it’s important to assess that claim critically, it’s worth covering the fact that the Olympics can win temporary, and geographically limited, improvements in human rights in the countries where they’re located every two years, but that those effects are minimal, and aimed more at avoiding international ire than making actual cultural changes. The very fact that Olympic participants might not be affected is precisely why it’s important for NBC to cover Russia’s gay rights record, and to choose a camera angle that’s wider than Sochi and the Olympic facilities themselves.