The Russian government has told the International Olympic Committee that the Sochi Games will be free from discrimination against homosexuals. That claim is not good enough. Neither is the IOC’s response.
Russia’s new law equates expressions of support for gay rights with “propaganda.” Russian officials have emphasized that the law does not prosecute people for being gay. Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak wrote to the IOC last week, saying it “cannot be regarded as discrimination based on sexual orientation.” This is doublespeak. The law is clearly discriminatory, restricts free expression, and only serves to legitimize a well-documented culture of intolerance against gay people in Russia. Besides all that, it is still unclear whether athletes or spectators who attend will be punished for protesting.
The IOC was right to ask Russia to ensure the law won’t be used against Olympians, but it should go further, and publicly denounce these discriminatory policies in its host country.
The IOC has traditionally stayed away from politics. But it cannot pretend to stand apart from the event it orchestrates. The choice of host country impacts billions of dollars of infrastructure investment, and billions more in sponsorship and marketing revenues. Allowing Russia to bask in the glory of an Olympic Games – and to use the event to advertise the country, as all hosts do – while flouting many of the ideals the movement stands for is perverse. A boycott is not the right response, but the IOC needs to denounce conduct in its host country that tarnishes the principles supposedly at the core of the Olympics.
Athletes may wish to speak out, but they may also wish to focus on the task at hand – winning competitions. They shouldn’t bear the brunt of challenging Russia. It falls to the world community, and also to the only body that can confer the glory of the Games on a host country – the IOC. The law makes a mockery of the spirit of unity that the Olympic movement claims to uphold, and the IOC should say so, publicly.