With just six months to go before the 2014 Winter Olympics open in Sochi, Russia, the International Olympic Committee is facing a dilemma in its hand-picked host country: Russia passed an anti-gay law earlier this year that outlaws homosexual propaganda and punishes any instance of it with fines, jail time, and possible deportation. That’s bad news for an organization that prides itself on tolerance, especially considering there will be LGBT athletes at the Games. So the IOC went and got “assurances” from the Russian government that the law wouldn’t apply to Olympians or fans, though other Russian officials have said those assurances are meaningless and that the law will be endorsed.
Facing pressure from LGBT activists and even President Obama, the IOC has announced that it intends to take action. Against any athlete who speaks out against the law during the Games.
Activists want athletes to wear rainbow flag pins or show LGBT pride and solidarity in other ways. American figure skater Johnny Weir has said he’s unafraid of getting arrested, and openly gay speed skater Blake Skjellerup from New Zealand, has pledged to wear a pin at the Games. But if they do, the IOC told GayStarNews this week, they risk violating Rule 50 of the Olympic charter, which states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
“Regarding your suggestions,” an IOC spokesperson told GayStarNews, “the IOC has a clear rule laid out in the Olympic Charter (Rule 50) which states that the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration. This rule has been in place for many years and applied when necessary. In any case, the IOC would treat each case individually and take a sensible approach depending on what was said or done.” Any athlete who violates that rule, the IOC says, could be punished with disqualification.
Talk about missing the point.
It’s understandable why the IOC doesn’t want political, religious, or racial statements flooding every Olympic Games. The Olympics are, indeed, supposed to be a time when politics are set aside and the world comes together, and at many previous Olympics, those statements could have run contra to the Olympic mission that promotes inclusion and tolerance in sports.
This is different. Advocating for human rights and tolerance of LGBT people, for one, isn’t “political propaganda” and isn’t even about politics. It’s about basic human decency and basic rights to compete, attend competitions, or live life as the person you are without fear of retribution, just as it was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black-gloved fists on the medal stand in Mexico City in 1968. Any pro-LGBT sentiment expressed in Sochi, meanwhile, won’t be undermining the Olympic Mission but upholding it. That’s especially important right now, since even though the IOC says it has assurances and even as IOC president Jacques Rogge says the Olympics “should be open to all, free of discrimination,” the IOC has done little to promote that tolerance and inclusion itself.
Would the IOC dare punish an athlete like Skjellerup who dons a pride pin or speaks out on behalf of both LGBT athletes and LGBT Russians? I doubt it. It would create a public relations nightmare that would give NBC, the BBC, and other major networks a reason to cover the controversy around the Russian law from an entirely new angle. It would also give LGBT rights proponents from activist groups to President Obama an even larger platform to call for change. In all likelihood, it would only spark even larger protests and actions from other athletes.
That’s why athletes who want to speak out shouldn’t fear. Any athlete who takes a stand will find a far more supportive media and world behind them than Smith and Carlos found in Mexico City. So go ahead and dare the IOC to punish athletes who try to uphold its very mission while it ignores a government promoting hatred and bigotry and violence against people because of who they are. I doubt that’s a fight IOC officials really wants to have, but if it is, the athletes should take it to them.