A chilling Russian warning to gay athletes heading to the Sochi Winter Olympics is sparking new outrage from Ottawa and elsewhere over the hosts' anti-gay laws.
Russia has passed a new law banning gay "propaganda" – a catch-all that prohibits gay pride events and providing information to minors on "non-traditional" relationships, and exposes those who express pro-gay views to prosecution. Foreigners can be hit with fines of about $3,000, and 15 days in a Russian jail.
Now Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko is warning that the law will be used against Olympians attending the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. A gay athlete won't be banned, he told R-Sport, the state news agency's sports wire, "but if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable."
That contradicts Russian assurances provided to the International Olympic Committee that the law would not be used against Olympic athletes – and it sparked Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird to express "deep concern."
"This type of law being enforced flies in the face of the entire Olympic spirit," he told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview from Colombia.
Mr. Mutko's assertion has raised new concerns about the treatment of gay athletes in Sochi – but it also appears to be heightening international criticism of the anti-gay laws imposed on Russians.
"As concerned as we are about the Olympics, that's nothing. That's two, three, four weeks for the athletes and participants and the visitors," Mr. Baird said. "This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every year. It is an incitement to intolerance, which breeds hate. And intolerance and hate breed violence."
A spokesman for the Canadian Olympic Committee, Dimitri Soudas, said both the COC and the International Olympic Committee have been assured by high-level Russian officials that the law would not have an impact on athletes, coaches, or visitors to the Games. "We will continue to raise this issue with the organizers of the Sochi Games," he said. "… in order to ensure that no athlete is impacted by this legislation."
The Russian law has already sparked debate in Canada and around the world about boycotting the Games – although some gay-rights advocates and athletes have argued that would be ineffective. Former Canadian Olympic swimmer Mark Tewksbury, who is gay, said last week a boycott would only hurt the athletes by forcing them to "shelve their dreams." New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup has said he'll wear a rainbow pin in protest.
Even protests now carry the threat of arrest and jail, however. Patrick Burke, the founder of You Can Play, a U.S.-based organization dedicated to combatting homophobia in sports, said athletes who want to protest should be encouraged – but none should feel obligated. "They're risking two weeks in a Russian prison," he said. "I don't want to do two weeks in a Russian jail."
The athletes that have endorsed You Can Play in videos and on the Internet – including NHL hockey players Shea Weber, Corey Perry, Carey Price, Steve Stamkos and Duncan Keith – have in theory already broken the Russian law by expressing support for gay rights, he said.
But he doubts that Russia will follow through on the threat to wield the law against Olympians.
"I have a very tough time believing that they're going to send police into the Olympic Village and pull athletes out," he said. The Russian Sports Minister is bluffing, either to intimidate gay athletes or to score some political points with supporters at home, he said. "I can't imagine that the Russian government wants to draw attention to the human-rights abuses."
Whether or not it wants to draw attention to the issue, however, Mr. Mutko already has. Mr. Baird said the run-up to the Olympics will be an opportunity to put pressure on the Russian government. Mr. Burke said the Olympics will be a platform for criticism of the Russian law: "We should be talking about it a lot," he said.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect first name for the founder of You Can Play. He is Patrick Burke not Paul.