In June of this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill that essentially bans homosexuality in Russia. Homophobia isn’t new to Russia; in the past the government has banned multiple gay pride parades, fined gay rights groups for being a “foreign agent” and created vague regional laws banning homosexual “propaganda” to minors. The bans associated homosexuality with pedophilia. These served as the basis for Putin’s recent federal law (passed unanimously by the State Duma).
The Russian court decided to deny the registration of a Sochi Pride House, a venue welcoming LBGTQ athletes, fans and other allies during the 2014 Winter Olympics. The decision stated that “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation” is a direct threat to Russian society and called attempts to confront homophobia “extremist” because they “incite social and religious hatred,” and these activities threaten “Russia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
The one institution that could overthrow Russia’s ruling on Pride Houses, the International Olympic Committee, refuses to take a stance on the matter. “We aren’t responsible for the running of or setting up of Houses,” says IOC spokesman Mark Adams. “That is done by the National Olympic Committees or other relevant organizations. So in this case it isn’t a decision of either us, or the organizing committee in Sochi.”
The IOC’s refusal to put its foot down on Russia’s bigotry opens a dangerous door and sends the message to future host countries that they may discriminate as they wish without the interference of the international committee.
While the IOC claims it has received assurances of the safety of athletes from the highest levels of government in Russia, lawmakers from Russia, such as Vitaly Milonov, are saying otherwise. Milonov, who sponsored legislation in St. Petersburg last year that became the basis for the national law signed by Putin, has warned that the anti-gay laws will remain in place during the games and will apply to foreigners. This means one thing: Gay athletes run the risk of being prosecuted while at the Olympics.
The IOC isn’t the only powerful committee rolling over to Russian law. Instead of speaking out against Russia or offering support to gay athletes, the U.S. Olympic Committee has said that athletes at the games should “comply” with Russian law that bans “homosexual propaganda.” USOC Chief Executive Scott Blackmun said, “It’s our strong desire that our athletes comply with the laws of every nation that we visit. This law is no different.”
Some are calling for the total boycott of the games. However, I agree with President Barack Obama that boycotting the Olympics would be inappropriate. The Olympics are the only event for which the world can come together, leaving behind all political conflict, to celebrate the triumph of mankind. Denying the right for athletes to make their lifelong, well-deserved dreams come true is simply wrong, under any political circumstances.
Gay former athlete, Robbie Rogers, who played soccer for the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics, says if he had the opportunity to do so, he would represent the U.S. with pride in Sochi. He says that while he can’t imagine telling athletes who felt it was best to boycott in 2014 not to do so, he also can’t imagine boycotting the opportunity for fellow athletes to do what he did back in 2008, which he describes as one of the best experiences of his life.
Rogers believes there is an opportunity for history to be made through this situation, recalling Jesse Owens’s triumph in the 1936 Berlin Games, which Hitler used as a chance to promote his ideas of racial purity to the world. Rogers reminds us that this historical moment, and incredible lesson to the world, would have been lost had the 1936 Berlin Olympics been boycotted.
The United States has certainly been put in a difficult position. We absolutely should not steal the dreams of deserving athletes by boycotting, but we also can’t just lie back and cooperate with hatefulness. The lack of any response from both the IOC and USOC is both a disappointment and embarrassment to what the Olympic Games supposedly symbolize. Someone needs to stand up to Russia and truly ensure the protection of all athletes, coaches, spectators and everyone else involved in the Sochi games. But if neither the International Olympic Committee nor the United States Olympic Committee are willing to do so, I’m not sure there is any other organization that has enough pull with the Olympics to do anything.