Russia’s law passed last summer banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors” triggered calls for a boycott of the Sochi Olympics. The statute discriminated against gays, protesters argued, and the Winter Games should not be held in a country that did not fully embrace one of the bedrock principles of the Olympic movement.
Monica Meyer believed just the opposite. The executive director of OutFront Minnesota — a key player in the campaign to legalize gay marriage in the state — thought the world’s grandest sports festival could serve as a worldwide podium for promoting equality. “This law is about creating silence and fear,” she said. “Instead, [the Olympics] are really shining a light on the international effort to send a message that people should be able to be who they are.”
A week before the start of the Winter Games in the southern resort city of Sochi, Russia’s prohibition on public displays of support for gays continues to generate both concern and protests. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said gays will not face discrimination during the Olympics’ 17-day run and that visitors should feel “safe and free.”
But a man who waved a rainbow flag along the route of the Olympic torch relay earlier this month was detained by police, and human rights groups report rising violence against gays within Russia since the law was passed in June. The International Olympic Committee also has faced criticism for not speaking out against the law and for rules that could punish athletes who show gestures of support for gays.
Some already have found creative ways of expressing dissent — including President Obama, who named three openly gay athletes to the U.S. delegation at the opening and closing ceremonies. While Meyer said it is impossible to predict whether the furor will create greater acceptance of gays in Russia, she said the Olympics have given the conversation an invaluable global platform.
“The reason we were able to win [marriage equality] is because Minnesota got to talk about these issues,” she said. “With the international visibility around this, there are so many conversations throughout the U.S. and other countries.
“It helps LGBT people all over the world see there is international support. Whether you’re in a country that is more accepting or a country that limits your freedom, that message is still really inspiring.”
According to the Council for Global Equality, an advocacy group based in Washington, Russia has been rated the least protective country in Europe for gays. Several regions in Russia — including Sochi’s — already had passed similar “gay propaganda” laws before the federal ban was enacted.
Evelyn Davidheiser, director of the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Global Studies, said Russia is a socially conservative country, particularly outside of major cities. The Russian Orthodox Church is also very conservative and is viewed as a moral leader.
“This [law] is reflective of the attitude of much of the Russian population,” she said. “Putin is kind of playing to that.”
Because of Russia’s status as Olympic host, the law received global scrutiny from the moment it was passed. Obama and officials of the U.S. Olympic Committee immediately rejected calls for a boycott, as did gay rights groups inside Russia. The Russian LGBT Network said a boycott would be a less powerful gesture than inviting the world to “show up and speak up” about the country’s treatment of gay citizens.
Several Olympic athletes already have spoken up, including American skier Bode Miller. “It’s absolutely embarrassing that there are countries and people who are that intolerant and that ignorant,” he said last fall. Others, such as American figure skater Ashley Wagner, have been more careful with their words. “I have a firm stance that we should all have equal rights,” she said. “At the same time, it is not my place to go into Russia and tell them how to run their country.”
Scott Blackmun, CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said his organization would not prohibit American athletes from speaking their minds. It has informed them of the law and possible consequences, including running afoul of International Olympic Committee rules.
Although the Olympic Charter says any form of discrimination is “incompatible” with the Olympic movement, its Rule 50 also prohibits demonstrations and political propaganda at Olympic sites. That has created concern that athletes showing support for gays during the Games could be sanctioned. The IOC has sidestepped direct criticism of the law and said it has been assured by Russian officials that there will be no discrimination in Sochi.
Athlete Ally, a coalition of athletes working to end homophobia in sports, has devised what it hopes is a way around Rule 50 and the Russian law. Its Principle 6 campaign — named for the part of the Olympic Charter that rejects discrimination — simply states support for that idea.
Hudson Taylor, executive director of Athlete Ally, said 50 athletes have signed on with the campaign. They include Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, an openly gay athlete who will compete in Sochi. The group will wear gear bearing the text of Principle 6 and use social media to spread the word.
“It’s important to realize this is an enormous opportunity to raise awareness,” Taylor said. “We would like to see sexual orientation be explicitly included in the Olympic Charter.”
Currently, the charter says discrimination based on “race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise” is not compatible with the Olympic movement. Blackmun and USOC President Larry Probst — who is an IOC member — said the USOC would support adding sexual orientation to the list.
Politics hard to suppress
Despite the IOC’s stance that the Olympics should be free of politics, the two often intersect. The 1936 Berlin Games also incited calls for a boycott, and the success of black U.S. sprinter Jesse Owens was viewed as a potent statement against Nazi policies. U.S. athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos famously raised their gloved fists in a black-power salute on the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games; their silent protest against racism got them expelled from the Olympics. More recently, the IOC was criticized by human-rights groups for awarding the 2008 Summer Games to China.
Obama reacted to the Russian law by naming three gay former athletes — tennis player Billie Jean King, figure skater Brian Boitano and hockey player Caitlin Cahow — to represent the U.S. government in Sochi. King said last fall that perhaps the gay community needs “a John Carlos moment.”
Reaction to the law, Meyer said, already has made a powerful statement. “I think more people are going [to the Olympics] who don’t usually go, who are saying they want to send a message,” she said. “On an international level, people are saying, ‘This law is wrong.’ ”