The International Olympic Committee is “fully satisfied” that Russia will not apply its anti-gay law banning “homosexual propaganda” to Olympic athletes, fans, and media when the Winter Games open in Sochi next February, top officials said at a press conference Thursday. Russia, those officials said, is ready to host the Olympic Games.
The IOC’s Coordination Committee debated how to respond to the law for days before deciding that “the IOC doesn’t have the right to discuss the laws that are in place in the country hosting the games, so unless the charter is violated we are fully satisfied,” Coordination Committee president Jean-Claude Killy told reporters Thursday, the Associated Press reported.
How the Russian law doesn’t violate the Olympic Charter or the Olympic Mission is a mystery. Former IOC president Jacques Rogge, whose term ended in September, said in August that “the Olympic Charter is very clear. It says that sport is a human right and it should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. And the games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, so our position is very clear.” The Olympic Mission, meanwhile, is to “link sport with culture and education” and “help to build a better world through sport practised in a spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect.”
Russia’s law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, doesn’t do any of that, and Russia hasn’t upheld those values since passing the law. The law bans anyone from talking to minors about “non-traditional sexual relationships” and keeps them from dispersing information about homosexuality, making it impossible to construe it as anything but discriminatory. Russia has cracked down on LGBT pride protests and banned all protests around the Games, and it has deported foreign visitors who were protesting against the law. This week, Russian police detained 10 LGBT activists who protested the law outside Sochi Olympics headquarters in Moscow.
While the IOC has no apparent intention of upholding that part of the Charter — relying on “assurances” from the Russian government that other Russian officials have disputed — it will maintain the part of the Charter that prevents athletes from protesting. Athletes who protest the law during or after competition or at any event related to the Olympics could be sanctioned under the Charter’s Rule 50, which prohibits “propaganda” in the use of demonstrations or protests. That means athletes who don rainbow pins or flags, or do something as simple as paint their fingernails in a rainbow design, as a Swedish athlete did at the track and field world championships in Moscow, could face punishment. The IOC hasn’t yet determined how it will apply Rule 50, especially as athletes continue to speak out against the law, though one official said simple demonstrations like nail polish aren’t likely to face punishment.
“Today we cannot enter into discussion about all the details” of whether and how athletes could be punished under Rule 50, new IOC president Thomas Bach said Thursday. But top Olympic federations, including the United States and Canada, have urged athletes not to protest. “If there have been lots of warnings, there’s no excuse for it,” Canadian Olympic chief Dick Pound, who has called the law “disgusting,” said. “Then it becomes a provocation.” U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Larry Probst echoed that, saying the USOC “will do everything to comply with IOC regulations and the way they intend to handle any protests or demonstrations.”
Whether athletes will heed the warnings of the IOC and their respective Olympic committees is unclear — some have said they plan to speak out, and there’s a good chance there will be high-profile openly gay athletes, like Kiwi speed skater Blake Skjellerup, at the Games — and news networks like NBC, which will broadcast the Games in the United States, could still devote coverage to the human rights effects of the Russian law. NBC has done that before with human rights abuses in China during the 2008 Beijing Games, and it seems likely that it will do so again.
Meanwhile, according to news reports, IOC officials appear not to have addressed other human rights issues surrounding the Russian Olympics, including the jailing of journalists and activists who have exposed corruption around the Sochi Olympics. But it’s position on the anti-gay law seems clear: it is taking Russia’s “assurances” to heart and putting the maintenance of the Olympic Games and the spectacle that surrounds it above the human rights ideals it professes to support.
“You will see that we will follow our values in the Olympic charter,” Bach said Thursday. That hardly seems the case.