As athletes keep speaking out against Russia’s controversial anti-gay law ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee and domestic Olympic committees keep asking them not to. The law may be “disgusting,” as Canadian Olympic chief Dick Pound put it, but the Olympics are about coming together as one world, and Russian law needs to be respected. And if the IOC is serious about punishing athletes who do take a stand at the Games, or if Russia fails to follow through on its “assurances” that it won’t apply the law to Olympic athletes, well, it’s better to be safe than to be penalized — or worse, fined or thrown in jail.
Bode Miller isn’t having any of it. “I think it’s absolutely embarrassing that there’s countries and there’s people who are that intolerant and that ignorant,” the downhill skier and five-time Olympic medalist said at an Olympic media summit this week, according to ESPN. Worse yet, Miller said, political issues and sports are inherently intertwined, so asking athletes not to opine on those issues simply because they are athletes is wrong too.
“I think it’s unfortunate when they get stuffed together because there are politics in sports and athletics,” Miller said. “They always are intertwined, even though people try to keep them separate or try to act like they’re separate. Asking an athlete to go somewhere and compete and be a representative of a philosophy and … then tell them they can’t express their views or they can’t say what they believe, I think is pretty hypocritical or unfair.”
The Olympics have been a stage for protest and social statements before, both about issues in the host country and in others, the most famous being John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Games. Carlos and Smith were noting the hypocrisy of United States civil rights law — black men like them could win medals for their country but weren’t treated as equals at home. In 1960, the Taiwanese team carried an “Under Protest” banner into the march of athletes after the IOC asked them to be recognized as “The Republic of China.” At the 1908 London games, American flag-bearer Ralph Rose refused to acknowledge King Edward VII by dipping the American flag, reportedly because the king had not yet acknowledged Irish independence. Olympic protests are almost as old as the Olympics themselves.
Perhaps there has never been a cause as obvious as this one. Athletes from Canada, the United States, Sweden, and other countries have already opened up against the Russian law. Russian president Vladimir Putin, fearing the worst, has banned all protests in Sochi during the Games. The IOC says it is “fully satisfied” with Russia’s ability to host. The country’s “assurances,” the IOC is telling athletes, are enough to protect them, fans, and media, even if Russian officials are saying those assurances are bunk.
But here’s what the IOC doesn’t get, and what athletes like Miller do: the assurances are worthless, because the problem isn’t whether Russia’s anti-gay law or its general intolerance will affect athletes, fans, and media, but how it will affect LGBT Russians (and their straight allies) once the Olympics are gone and the spotlight is no longer shining on Sochi. The law will still exist, LGBT Russians will still face discrimination for living their lives and arrest and detention for arguing publicly that they ought to be able to live it openly.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos weren’t arguing against discrimination at the Olympics, but discrimination at home. Ralph Rose wasn’t asking that the Irish be allowed to join the Games (they were, though they declined) but that they be allowed to govern themselves independently. The Taiwanese athletes were asking for recognition and respect from both the IOC and the international community.
Sometimes, the best way to protest may be silently through victory. That’s what Jesse Owns did in Berlin, what President Obama has advocated in Russia and what gold medalist bobsledder Steve Holcomb said he’d do when he got to Sochi. “It would be so much better to go over there and kick their butt,” Holcomb said, echoing his president. “That, right there, would say so much. That’s just my opinion.”
But sometimes, athletes want to take a stand. It’s easy to sit back and say that politics and sports don’t mix, to decry athletes for wanting to speak out during the competitions. Plenty of people did that when Smith and Carlos took the medal stand and raised two black-gloved fists into the air (the silver medalist, white Australian John Cooke, wore a patch to protest alongside them) that night in Mexico City. But 50 years later, in an America much different than the one they raised their fists against, we look back at the salute as a powerful moment of change. To tell the story of civil rights in America without them is to tell an incomplete tale.
The Olympics themselves are political, as apolitical as they try to be. They are billed as a way to press pause on our differences and come together as one, but that coming together involves the values of inclusiveness and positive societal and cultural change. The Olympic Mission makes no secret of that — it states that the Olympics are meant to “link sport with culture and education” and “help to build a better world through sport practised in peace, excellence, friendship, and respect.” The IOC has worked tirelessly to promote the inclusion of women and racial and ethnic minorities, even when opposed by political interests. It is only when disrupting the wishes of host country comes into play that the message of inclusion takes a backseat. But the Olympics give both hosts and participants legitimacy and acknowledgment on the world stage, and with that comes the responsibility to uphold the values of inclusion and respect the Olympics are supposed to promote. When countries fail, as Russia is now and as others, including the United States, have in the past, the Olympics give the world a chance to use sports to draw attention to those failures in a peaceful and respectful manner.
This is the mission the Olympics chose. To ask athletes to uphold Olympic values while, at the same time, staying quiet about them isn’t just wrong, it’s impossible. Bode Miller realizes that. Maybe one day, the IOC will too.