Russia, which will play host to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and the 2018 World Cup across the country, moved a step closer to passing radical anti-gay legislation yesterday, when its lower legislative body voted 436-0 to approve a bill that will effectively ban homosexuality within the nation’s borders. The legislation still requires passage from Russia’s upper house and the signature of President Vladimir Putin, but both are virtually guaranteed.
The law, together with another one that will punish those who “offend religious feelings of the faithful,” will make displays of homosexuality in public or the dissemination of homosexual “propaganda” illegal. Russians who violate it will be arrested and jailed. Foreigners who do the same will be arrested and deported.
Such a law should be a call to action for the International Olympic Committee and FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, ahead of two of the world’s premier sporting events that will take place in Russia over the next five years. There were 23 openly gay athletes at the 2012 London Olympics; it’s hard to imagine there wasn’t at least one gay player in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa or that there won’t be one at the 2014 edition in Brazil. There were surely more openly gay fans attending both events.
FIFA and the IOC have repeatedly ignored the issue. In February, the IOC said it was “too early” to comment on the law “because it has not been voted on.” When a Russian judge shut down a Pride House, a feature of past Olympiads that hosts gay athletes, the IOC said simply, “We aren’t responsible for the setting up of Houses.” In 2010, FIFA president Sepp Blatter said gay athletes and fans “should refrain from any sexual activities” in Russia or Qatar, the host of the 2022 World Cup, and a country that also bans homosexuality.
FIFA passed sweeping new anti-racism rules this month, but Blatter told the BBC that homophobia didn’t warrant the same attention. “What you are speaking about, I do not think it is part of racism, perhaps this is going into ethics and morals,” Blatter said. “This, I think, is not the time being to bring it now. If you bring it to my attention then I should have a look on that. But I cannot give you a definite answer.”
Others are already taking action. A Russian activist is asking the international court to intervene in the systemic discrimination against a minority group. Other Russians are protesting in the streets. Athletes have spoken out, and LGBT fan groups in other countries have expressed concern about the law’s effect on fans and players at the events. American activists launched a White House petition asking the country to boycott the Winter Olympics.
But instead of stepping up and speaking out, FIFA and the IOC have abandoned their own missions and efforts to rid discrimination from their sports. That silence won’t kill the issue. There will be protests from Russian activists and perhaps violent responses from anti-gay activists like those that occurred outside the Russian legislature Tuesday. There will be athletes and fans who don’t attend and participate. Those who do will be relegated to the closet. In a nightmare scenario, fans and athletes could be arrested and deported.
And through it all, silence from FIFA and the IOC will turn events that should draw people to sports into official endorsements of exclusion.