Are The IOC’s Assurances For Gay Athletes And Fans At The Sochi Olympics Enough?


sochigamesThe International Olympic Committee announced this weekend that it “has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia” that recently-passed anti-gay legislation would “not affect those attending or taking part in the Games,” a positive sign for the athletes and fans who will be at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. The IOC kept silent about the legislation, which bans “homosexual propaganda,” as it weaved its way through Russia’s legislature and offered only a non-specific statement about fairness and tolerance after it became law.

The new statement comes a week after four Dutch citizens were fined and deported for violating the law and amid public outcry from international human rights and LGBT groups against the deportations and the rise in anti-gay violence in the country. But is it enough?

In a larger piece about why NBC needs to cover not just how the law affects athletes but how it affects ordinary Russians too, Alyssa noted that the assurances from the Russian government will apply in a temporary and geographically limited basis, in a way that will win the IOC praise or at least allow it to avoid the controversy that would come with mass protests or violence against gay fans or athletes in the vicinity of Olympic venues. What it won’t do is change the way Russians and foreigners in other parts of the country will be treated by anti-gay activists — certainly not after the Olympics are gone and probably not during the ceremonies either.

That might not be the IOC’s problem, and maybe it shouldn’t be. I’m not sure what the organization could do the change the law — it’s not feasible to pick up the Sochi Olympics seven months before they begin and move them elsewhere, so protecting members of the LGBT community who are around Olympic venues or in Russia during the Games might be the only real option. Still, the statement reads like somewhat of a cop-out. It doesn’t “remain to be seen whether and how it will be implemented,” as the IOC said, because people are already being deported and violence against LGBT people is occurring often. And even if the IOC can’t change the law, “assurances” that it won’t affect athletes and fans are, at least at this point, toothless.

So whether its motivations are pure or self-interested, the IOC’s responsibility doesn’t end at “assurances from the highest level” of the Russian government. It has to ensure that the Russian government follows through on them, and it can’t be alone: Olympic committees in countries like the United States, France, and Great Britain have to be strong alongside it. I don’t think the IOC or FIFA, international soccer’s governing body, should make the handing of their events to chronic human rights abusers a regular practice, but the fact that the Olympics and the World Cup are bringing a more LGBT-conscious sports world to Russia in a four-year span may draw enough negative global attention to the horrific law to actually cause change. But the events only have that potential if the organizations take seriously their roles as global leaders and their commitments, in the IOC’s words, to sporting events “free of discrimination” that “applies to spectators, officials, media and of course athletes.” The Olympics and the World Cup can affect positive social changes in the countries that host them, but those changes come about because of actions from both inside and outside groups, not because of potentially empty assurances and official statements about them.