Author’s note: It’s late summer, and the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics are still five months away, but sports fans around the globe are already gearing up for the greatest of sporting events. Next February, the world will come together for two exciting weeks of good, clean competition. The Olympics are a premier sporting event, but there are times when it is hard to separate politics and human rights from the glitz and glamour of the Games. There are many world issues on the table as we head toward Sochi, but this article explores the new Russian anti-gay laws and how they might affect the Sochi experience.
Tidying up Russia
The Olympic Games are a cause for celebration; for the athletes it is a culmination of years of training and for the fans it is an opportunity to support their teams. But a shadow has been cast across the Sochi Olympics. In July, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a new law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations around minors.” The law will definitely be enforced during the Olympics, according to Russian politician and architect of the new law, Vitaly Milonov. Violators of the law will face fines, deportation and up to 15 days in jail.
The International Olympic Committee stands by its Charter, which clearly states “Sports constitute a human right and should be open to all regardless of race, sex, or sexual orientation.” Lest there be any misunderstanding, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak quickly sent a letter to IOC President Jacques Rogge as a reassurance that Russia will comply with the Olympic Charter with zero tolerance for discrimination of any kind. This was good enough for the IOC based on the fact that gay athletes will be allowed to participate as always.
Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993 in Russia, but the bottom line of Putin’s new law makes it illegal to expose minors to information that portrays gay relationships as normal or attractive. Vitaly Mutko, the Russian Minister of Sport, defends the law with the following statement. “We want to protect our children whose psyches have not formed from the propaganda of drug use, drunkenness and nontraditional sexual relations.”
Anti-gay activities are nothing new in Russia. Since 2006, regional laws have been used to fine activists and prevent public events that support lesbians, gays, bi-sexuals, and trans-genders. The new anti-gay federal legislation is a part of a wave of repressive laws adopted by an unpopular parliament.
So what to pack if you are an athlete, fan, or media person heading to Sochi? Go ahead and throw in that rainbow flag, as Putin has recently declared displaying this accessory a non-punishable action. Your multi-colored nail polish is probably okay, too, but maybe leave your gloves on, just in case. You will want plenty of warm clothes, but leave your freedom of speech in the long underwear drawer at home.
Blurring the Lines: a Brief History of Activism during the Olympics
Moscow hosted the 2013 Track and Field World Championships just a few weeks after the passage of the new Russian anti-gay law. There were no outward protests or demonstrations, but there was an undercurrent of opposition to the legislation that surfaced in the media. Were the 4×400 Meter Russian women’s gold medal team’s post-race and medal stand kisses an act of defiance or just an affectionate celebration? And what about Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro, who took a short-lived stand with her rainbow painted fingernails?
The 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi may be the first Olympics where the host country has threatened to arrest athletes, visitors, and media.
The history of the Ancient Olympics gives cause to believe that the safety of the athletes came first. Weapons were left at home, wars and legal disputes were suspended, and the death penalty forbidden. The Olympic Games were an agreed upon truce period. At one Games, the warring Spartans were dismissed from competition due to their inability to play by the rules.
Germany was host country to the Summer and Winter Games in 1936. In compliance with the spirit of the Olympics, Hitler and the Nazi Party stepped down from their homophobic platform and waived all anti-gay laws during the Olympics. For the two-week competition period, all anti-Semitic posters were removed at the venues. Interestingly, political gestures were allowed. IOC President Avery Brundage allowed the Nazi salute during the Games, claiming it to be a “national salute”. Years later, criticism of Brundages’ Nazi sympathy, which lasted even after the breakout of World War II, was cause for his termination as IOC President.
The 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics will always be remembered for the Men’s 200 Meter medal ceremony. Gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos raised their fists in a Black Power salute, an overt political statement. All three medalists, including silver medalist, Australian Peter Norman, wore human rights badges on their uniforms.
Avery Brundage, still in power as IOC President, took immediate action and suspended both Smith and Carlos from the Games and banned them from the Olympic Village. When the USOC initially refused to comply, Brundage threatened to ban the entire Track and Field team. Ultimately, the two were expelled from the Games and were never allowed to compete internationally again. In an act of solidarity, the US Women’s 4×400 team dedicated their victory to the exiled sprinters.
In a 2008 interview on NPR, Smith claimed that the 1968 protest was a year in the making. The 1960’s were a time of social change, civil rights, riots, assassinations, and war and Smith recalled taking a big chance when he raised his fist over his head in an act of defiance. He recounted having to repeatedly defend his action, which cost him his athletic career. Critics admonished him for using the Olympics as a political forum and suggested that he find another platform for his beliefs. His response was simple, what better platform?
The 1980 Olympics in Moscow were fraught with political tension and boycotts due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Even then, the Soviets did not threaten to jail protesting athletes during the Games. Athletes of the boycotting countries, the US included, lost their opportunity to compete at the Olympics; for some, their dream was lost forever.
More recently, American speed skater, Joey Cheek made Olympic history at the 2006 Turin Games by donating his USOC gold medal award of $25,000 to Darfur refugees. Cheek went on to organize an athlete group, Team Darfur, in advance of the 2008 Bejing Olympics. Team Darfur’s goal was to raise awareness of victims of the Sudanese war and to possibly demonstrate at the Bejing Games. In the end, Cheek was denied an entry visa into China because of the country’s ties to the Sudanese government.
The 2008 Summer Olympics in Bejing were on shaky political footing from the start. At the 2004 Games in Athens, a “Free Tibet” banner was unfurled during a diving final, a harbinger of unease heading into the Bejing Games. Politics were certainly hot as the Bejing Games approached, with the oppression of Tibetans, global warming, and Darfur all at the forefront. There was no real threat of boycotts, but the stadium architect, Ai Weiwei, refused to attend the opening ceremony because of the “disgusting politics in the one-party state.” Prince Charles refused to attend in support of the “Free Tibet” movement, and Steven Spielberg resigned as artistic consultant on account of China’s stance on Darfur. Nevertheless, with George Bush in attendance, the Bejing Summer Games went on with no visible trouble.
Sochi: Stand Up or Sit Down?
Rumors of boycotts of the Sochi Games surfaced not long after the Russian anti-gay law was unfurled. All kinds of celebrities have stepped up in support of a boycott, including pop star Lady Gaga, actor George Takei of Star Trek fame, and comedian Stephen Fry, among others. Coca Cola, a sponsor of the 2014 Olympics, has been the target of derision. Suggestions to move the Sochi Winter Games to Vancouver in 2015 have filtered through the media.
President Obama, heading into the G-20 Summit, has voiced strong support for LGBT rights and sharp criticism for Putin’s anti-gay legislation. However, he has stated that he does not support a US boycott of the Sochi Olympics because it would penalize American athletes.
The IOC has put its trust in Russia to follow the guidelines of the Olympic Charter. The Games will go on and everyone is entitled to play. The USOC has issued a formal statement regarding US participation at Sochi. In the letter, USOC CEO Scott Blackmun states, “we continue to seek assurances that athletes, delegation members, the media and fans will be safe while attending the Games next year.”
Blackmun goes on to speak to the USOC’s stance on LGBT rights. “We strongly support equal rights for all and believe that laws restricting the right to act and speak in support of the LGBT community are inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Olympic and Paralympic movements. We have shared our views with the IOC.”
In the end, Blackmun makes it perfectly clear that “we cannot forget that we are first and foremost a sports organization. Our mission is to help enable American athletes to win medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games.” The US will be joining in and abiding by the idea that, as Blackmun states, The Games do not belong to countries, they belong to the athletes around the world who have been training most of their lives for one moment in time.”
The US Ski Team: Keeping an Eye on the Medals
The word from US Ski Team leader, Chris Grover, is that the men and women on the Team have been talking about the LGBT legislature at their camps this summer. He commented by email from New Zealand, saying that the issue is definitely on the talking table and he anticipates further discussion at the Lake Placid camp this month. “We are encouraging the athletes to express themselves concerning these recent events as their conscience dictates. As an organization and a team, we do not tolerate discrimination in any form and we value diversity. When we go to Sochi this winter, we will go there to compete at the highest level on the field of play.”
Andy Newell weighed in on the Russian anti-gay legislation from New Zealand, voicing his support for equal rights for everyone no matter their sexual orientation.
“My teammates and I completely support all Olympic competitors, gay or straight. Having been a born and raised Vermonter, I’m also proud of some of the progress the US has made in equal rights over the years.”
That said, Newell’s bottom line is that the Olympics are about sports and not about politics. He stressed the significance of being on an Olympic team and how it “has a different from any other major event or championships because of the sense of team and country. When you are competing there is definitely a sense that what you are participating in is bigger than you, the individual.”
Newell emphasized that competing in the Olympics is special and even selfless in this respect, because you are representing your country. “I think because of this, things like social beliefs are left on the sideline. It’s not necessarily a responsibility or right to convey specific stances on issues when you are representing an entire country.
Newell hopes for a smooth Olympics without too much drama. He plans to tread lightly on the issue while in Sochi, showing respect for the rules of the host country. “There is a time and place for everything and speaking up for what you believe in is important.”
Kikkan Randall took time from her busy travel schedule to connect about the Sochi anti-gay issue by email. Quick to voice her opinion that a boycott of the Olympics is not the right solution to oppose the Russian legislation, Randall does not personally support the laws or the ideals behind them. “With several family members in the LGBT community, this issue is particularly important to me as I am concerned about their safety to attend the Games to watch me compete.”
While hoping for a safe and peaceful Olympic Games, Randall takes a strong stance on human rights. “I feel strongly that discrimination of any kind does not belong in sport. I have always thought of the Olympics as an arena and event where politics have no place. Therefore, I am saddened and disappointed that Russia, a host of the upcoming Olympic Games, is bringing their politics into the spotlight (and that they are being allowed to) by threatening to impress their political views on the participants and spectators of the Games.”
Randall wrapped up her email by putting it all in perspective. “The Olympics represent so many positive things and the lifelong hard work of so many athletes. A boycott would be a disservice to all the things that are going right. I really hope positive attention on the Olympics can help bring about positive solutions to this issue.”
The word from the Canadians came through via an email from Men’s coach, Justin Wadsworth, who did not mince words, stating that the Canadians stay out of political issues on all fronts when it comes to sport. “We compete clean and fairly, and we try to keep sport as sport. There are so many issues in the world all the time that anyone can get on board with, but the Olympics are about sport, not politics. As long as everyone has a fair chance to compete, then sport can take place.”
Nancy Fiddler is a two-time Olympian and 14-time National Champion. She has been coaching juniors and masters for 20 years in Mammoth Lakes and Truckee, Calif., and most recently in Sun Valley, Idaho. She lives most of the time in the Eastern Sierra with her husband and daughter and is currently trying to get in touch with her creative side through writing.