Let’s get a few things clear at the start of this discussion about Russia’s indefensible new law forbidding “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”
1. Even if it weren’t frequently feckless, as shown in its kowtowing to China and turning a blind eye for years toward discrimination against women athletes in many countries, the International Olympic Committee would not take the 2014 Winter Olympics away from Sochi, Russia. And moving them at this late date is impossible – that may be why ex-KGB strongman Vladimir Putin chose this summer to have the law passed.
2. A boycott, which never would gain wide traction in the Olympic world, punishes no one but the athletes deprived of the chance to compete. Yes, there are more important things at stake than who wins a gold medal in Nordic combined, but there is no chance that a boycott would lead Russia to back down.
3. The IOC will stand behind the hair-splitting idea that even if the anti-gay legislation violates the spirit of the Olympic Charter – and who knows what the law really prohibits? – it does not violate its terms as long as the entire rainbow of athletes can compete in Sochi. Thus, the “quiet diplomacy” the IOC talks about to ensure the law is not enforced during the Winter Games.
The IOC should back off its comfortably defensible position of not interfering with national sovereignty and shout for Russia to repeal the law rather than just refrain from enforcing it during the Winter Olympics.
“The IOC has been told by Russian politicians at the highest level that the new law will not be a problem during Sochi 2014, and I am confident that no athlete or their entourage will have any reason for concern,” IOC presidential candidate Sergey Bubka of Ukraine said in an email.
That answer is realpolitik – a short-term solution that does not address the long-term effects of the law, with its suppression of individual right to expression in ways that can be both loud and huge as a Gay Pride parade or as small as wearing a lapel pin. There is little doubt the ban on such expression is just a smokescreen for discrimination against anyone who is LGBT.
Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko’s statement at a Thursday press conference struck the same tone of expedience. A week after saying the law would be enforced, Mutko said everyone should “calm down,” insisted the Russian constitution protected privacy and added, “Rest assured that all the athletes and all the sports organizations should be relaxed.”
Maybe during the Olympics. Maybe for those with Olympic credentials. Maybe until Mutko changes his mind again.
Assurances about “safety and security of our athletes” at the Winter Games are what U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun – walking on the eggshells of a newly-repaired relationship with the IOC – said were his primary concern in a letter to his direct constituents.
The letter did not address the underlying human rights issue other than saying, “we strongly support equal rights for all.”
The USOC declined further comment, and no National Olympic Committee has issued any statement of opposition to the Russian law.
What could happen to athletes who choose to make pro-gay statements in Sochi? And what should the IOC do about the law itself?
I asked those questions last week in emails to all six candidates to succeed Jacques Rogge in September’s election for IOC President: Bubka, Thomas Bach of Germany, Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, Denis Oswald of Switzerland, Ching-Kuo Wu of Chinese Taipei, and Ser Miang Ng of Singapore. Wu and Ng did not respond.
All spoke of the law not being implemented during the Sochi Olymplcs. Only Carrion saw the problem in a larger perspective, even if that cannot change anything this winter or probably any time discriminatory laws are passed at the 11th hour before an Olympics.
“A condition to getting the Olympic Games in the future should be to make sure the city does not have laws that discriminate against people in any way, consistent with the Olympic Charter,” Carrion wrote.
Item 5 of the Olympic Charter’s fundamental principles of Olympism says, “The practice of sport is a human right.” Item 6 says, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement,”
Lawyers could haggle forever about whether the IOC thinks these elegant words apply de jure, de facto or not at all to this situation. History says "not at all," most notably when anti-Semitic then U.S. Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage played bootlick to Hitler during the 1936 Olympics.
And what if an athlete speaks out in Sochi, whether symbolically or in an interview? Will the IOC do what it did to U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos at Mexico City, when its president, the same Avery Brundage, insisted the USOC send them home after their message about human rights - a raised, black-gloved hand in protest against U.S. racism - on the medal stand of the 200 meters?
IOC vice-president Gerhard Heiberg of Norway told the Associated Press that he expects athletes to be nice children.
“We always say to our athletes, 'We do not want any demonstrations in one or the other direction,’” Heiberg said. `Please, you are there to compete and behave. Please don't go out on the Net or in the streets.'"
When I asked Heiberg in an email if an athlete should be punished or reprimanded for individually exercising freedom of speech by criticizing this law in an interview at the Olympics or choosing to wear a symbol of LGBT support, he referred me to IOC spokesman Mark Adams.
``I think we'd treat each comment individually and take a sensible view depending on what was said,” Adams replied. “No point in making a blanket statement about hypothetical individual comments.”
One can only hope athletes, LGBT or not, use the chance to show their disgust. As Carlos said to Dave Zirin of Grantland when asked about a Sochi boycott:
"The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you. If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don't let your message be buried and don't bury yourself."
In answer to my email, Denis Oswald of Switzerland noted “the Olympic Charter prohibits all kind of public political statements or demonstrations (like wearing a symbol) at the Olympic Games, but athletes should not lose the right to express their opinion in interviews for example.’’
One can also hope that the IOC will be smart and do or say nothing about reasoned protest, even if an athlete unfurls a rainbow flag at the Opening Ceremony or a medal ceremony.
Silent acceptance of injustice is wrong. But silent acceptance from the IOC of the right to free expression and to be who one is would speak volumes.
The IOC promulgates values that suggest moral authority. It needs the spine to stand behind them.