Preliminary Thoughts About Russia, the Olympics and Pittsburgh

As you may know, there is a huge controversy brewing over the February 2014 Winter Olympics which are scheduled to be held in the Sochi region in Russia. Like Beijing and other host cities, Russia’s human rights violations are under intense scrutiny – most notably their brutal crackdown on ‘homosexual propaganda.’

First, the law itself is generating a terrible backlash among the general population which has declared open season on LGBTQ Russians – see this account (the photos are hard to view) of teen boys being tortured.

Here’s the element that impacts foreigners.

The legislation, signed into law by Russian President Vladimir Putin this June, authorizes the 15-day jailing of foreigners and fines for both foreigners and Russians who are convicted of “promotion of non-traditional sexual relations among minors.” The breadth of the law, as judged by public comments of officials and early attempts at prosecution, could criminalize any public discussion or dissemination of information about homosexuality.

So any hockey player who contributed to the “You Can Play” project might be considered someone promoting non-traditional sexual relations among minors. Like Brooks Orpik, one of the seven members of the Penguins heading to Sochi. (Note: several Russian players from the NHL are also traveling to Sochi to play for Russia; I can’t imagine what this sort of tension must be doing to their state of minds.)OlympicsSochi


Olympic participants and visitors will not be exempt from this law which creates a tremendous security issue for Team USA and for every nation – how to keep their citizens safe? Consider this – wearing a pro-gay pin on your lapel is an offense punishable by arrest. How do you keep everyone safe without imposing some sort of draconian code of conduct? An how would you impose that? Is it possible?

Second, athletes are not taking the safe road – they are speaking out and speaking for the Russian people.  Today, representatives from All Out delivered a petition with over 300,000 signatures calling for the International Olymic Committee (IOC) to take a firm stance against the law.

Greg Louganis, four time Olympic Gold medalist and Athlete Ally Ambassador said: “I urge the International Olympic Committee to listen to the more than 300,000 people who have signed Athlete Ally and All Out petitions urging world leaders to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay laws. The IOC should urge Russia to repeal their anti-gay laws ahead of the 2014 Olympic Games rather than simply suspending the laws during the games. No one should be satisfied until these dangerous laws are repealed and all Russians are treated with dignity under the law.”

Actor Stephen Fry shared an open letter with All Out urging the IOC to speak out now about Russia’s anti-gay laws. In it he wrote, “It is simply not enough to say that gay Olympians may or may not be safe in their village. The IOC absolutely must take a firm stance on behalf of the shared humanity it is supposed to represent.”

The New York Times highlights several key points, mostly about the impact of the IOC’s “tepid” response.

Just as Russia now prohibits “propaganda” in support of “nontraditional” sexual orientation, the Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the Winter and Summer Games.

So it is entirely possible that any bobsledder or skier wearing a pin, patch or T-shirt in support of gay rights could be sent home from Sochi, not by Russian authorities, but by another group that suppresses expression: the International Olympic Committee.

Would the I.O.C. inflict such a public-relations disaster on itself? Perhaps not. But Olympic officials worldwide, including those in the United States, along with NBC and corporate sponsors, have put themselves and athletes in an awkward position by only tepidly opposing the Russian law that bans “homosexual propaganda.”

So an athlete could lose their Olympic opportunity simply by speaking out against the oppression of LGBTQ people. And if you think they are not losing something unique about the Olympics by suggesting that outcome, consider that the PrideVillage present in Vancouver and London is absent from Sochi – there is no gathering space within the Olympic grounds for the LGBTQ athletes. What does that say about the Olympics being “politics free?” It is absurd.

Is it even viable to call for the Olympics to move to another country? As the simple call for boycotts of Russian vodka shows, its very complicated – bar owners and media advocates battle it out about the ethnic identity of Russian vodka, is this brand Russian? What about this one? What’s evident is that this conversation spurred a larger conversation and also showed people’s willingness to distance themselves from Russian vodka. And that’s important.

The key issue is to pressure the IOC to take a much stronger stance on the laws, both with regard to the athletes and the Russian people.

More in another post about the connection and impact for Pittsburgh.


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