With barely 150 days before the world’s greatest winter athletes skate, slide and ski into Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics, will gay athletes and their supporters be welcome? The International Olympic Committee says it’s not sure how Russia’s recent anti-gay laws will affect the Games and is faced with another difficult decision: Uphold Olympic values and protect the Olympic flame, or allow the host city to violate human rights and the Olympic Charter.
Gay activists around the world are calling for a boycott, but the news media’s focus on boycotting fails to get to the heart of the problem, which is a lack of leadership from the top down. With the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the IOC and president Jacques Rogge lowered the bar.
As we head to Sochi, “Russia’s Olympian Abuses,” documented extensively by Human Rights Watch, are already beginning to define the Games. Exploitation of migrant labourers building Olympic venues and countrywide crackdowns on civil society and journalism are giving Beijing’s abuses a run for their money. All this is in addition to the toxic new laws violating the rights of gay people, including gay visitors and likely any media who try to report on them.
“There isn’t a police officer or a government that, should I qualify, could keep me from competing at the Olympics,” said Johnny Weir, an openly gay, two-time U.S. Olympic figure skater who is training for Sochi. But Mr. Rogge has acknowledged that he doesn’t actually know that’s true, conceding that Moscow’s assurances need “clarifications.”
Mr. Rogge did say that the Olympic Charter is clear: “A sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation.” But he also said that he didn’t think it would be a “fundamental issue.”
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has no such doubts, and has made it clear that the laws will apply, stating that athletes will have to “respect the laws of the country” during the Olympics. He’s insisted that Russia will not back down: “All sensible people understand that sports demand independence, that it is inadmissible that politics intervene.”
But purposely confusing politics with human rights is old hat for the IOC, which has consistently failed to acknowledge that the Olympic Charter guarantees human rights.
The IOC has complete power over national Olympic committees, including Russia. Like the athletes who compete, Russia should not be allowed to break the rules and violate the Olympic Charter’s ban on “discrimination of any kind.” While Mr. Mutko has said the athletes’ private lives will be respected during the 17 days of the Olympics, what about the lives of Russians before and afterward?
IOC member Sergey Bubka, the legendary Ukrainian pole vaulter who broke the world record 35 times and won gold in Seoul in 1988 for the Soviet Union, is running for the presidency of the IOC along with five others, including two other Olympians, Thomas Bach of Germany and Denis Oswald of Switzerland. In his 26-page manifesto for the presidency, Mr. Bubka says: “The Olympic movement can make a real difference [as long as its] values are carefully guarded and widely promoted.”
The IOC will elect Mr. Rogge’s successor on Sept. 10. Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch and the Committee to Project Journalists sent a letter to the IOC presidential candidates asking their views on human rights relevant to the Olympic movement and the Sochi Games. The IOC issued a statement saying it has no power over Russia’s anti-gay laws. It did not include any specific responses from individual candidates, but Mr. Bubka recently said, “There should be no discrimination to anyone, any religion, sexual or any political issue … The Games always bring good change. We are confident that there will be no discrimination in Sochi.”
If Mr. Bubka, Mr. Rogge and the IOC membership truly believe that Olympic values are worth upholding, they must take action. The IOC must publicly condition Russia’s hosting of the Sochi Olympics on ending discrimination against gay people – or else the IOC will be violating not only its own rules, but international human-rights law. Such conditions are not without precedent; the IOC banned South Africa from the Olympic movement during apartheid and Afghanistan during Taliban rule. It also pressured Saudi Arabia to send two women to London in 2012.
Russia should not be welcome in the Olympic movement unless it repeals homophobic laws, investigates homophobic crimes, including murder, upholds other human rights related to the construction of Olympic venues, and protects freedom of expression.
Olympic membership is a privilege that can and should be withdrawn when violations of essential human rights and the Olympic Charter occur.
Nikki Dryden is a human-rights lawyer. She competed in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games as a swimmer.