When Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into Russian legislation a law that criminalized all conduct supporting, encouraging or positively portraying the LGBT orientation in June 2013, it sparked an international outcry that has been growing in intensity, especially leading into the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. This broad law specifically bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” making it illegal to distribute information on gay rights or even suggest that homosexual relationships are equal to their heterosexual counterparts. The law was originally conceived and enacted to protect the well-being of minors, but it has been enforced through countless brutal civil rights violations that have outraged human rights activists and world leaders alike.
Following the legislation’s passing, President Obama met with Russian gay-rights activists and stated that he would keep pressuring Russia to respect human rights. In a sign of continued solidarity, Obama will not be attending the Olympics in Sochi, and he has responded further by wishing gay athletes to come out and win gold medals in the face of Russian law. While no out LGBT athletes are representing the United States in the 2014 games, Obama has named openly gay Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano and lesbian former U.S. hockey Olympian (and current law student) Caitlin Cahow to the official U.S. delegation for the Olympics. “There is no doubt we wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” Obama said. “One of the wonderful things about the Olympics is that you are judged by your merit, how good you are regardless of where you come from, what you look like, who you love and that I think is consistent with the spirit of the Olympics.” Naming out former Olympians to the U.S. delegation sends a clear message from the United States to Putin and the International Olympic Committee.
Founded in June 1894, the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee (IOC) organizes and governs the Olympic games. Its Olympic Charter, while amended over the years, has historically decided the outcome of Olympic controversy and regulated the games, upholding the principles and values of Olympism and IOC law. Among the charter’s articles and principles is one that has caught international attention as a rallying cry for the LGBT community and civil rights activists heading into the homophobic terrain of Russia: Principle 6.
Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter states, “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender, or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement.” The IOC has even openly confirmed that this principle includes sexual orientation. A group of more than 50 current and former Olympic athletes, including current Olympian and out Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, lesbian tennis star Martina Navratilova, and gay diving gold medalist Greg Louganis, have started the Principle 6 campaign. The Principle 6 campaign uses the language of the Olympic Charter to give athletes and fans a way to speak out against this violence and discrimination before and during the Sochi Olympics without breaking Russian anti-gay propaganda laws. Brockhoff has publicly stated that she will wear Principle 6 gear at the Olympics to protest the IOC and its failure to adhere to its own Olympic Charter, a loophole that will hopefully keep her and other athletes safe.
This is not the first time that the Olympic Charter’s seemingly hard stance on equality has been called into question. The decision to host the 2008 Summer Olympic games in Beijing sparked similar controversy due to China’s human and civil rights abuses. European Parliament even went as far as to discuss an Olympic boycott—similar to the boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Russia as a reaction to its invasion of Afghanistan—due to China violating Article 1 of the Olympic Charter, which seeks “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Needless to say, no boycott occurred and the games continued as planned. In 2012, Saudi Arabia was challenged for not allowing female athletes to participate in the Olympic games, thus violating the aforementioned Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter. A proposed ban of its participation in the London Olympics was shot down by the IOC, stating that it does “not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”
I appreciate a good dialogue as much as the next person, but there seems to be no dialogue possible with Putin and other Russian leaders. Putin has openly stated that gays at the Sochi Olympics won’t be arrested if they “leave children alone,” further confirming that a major world leader is ignorant to the difference between a homosexual and a pedophile. Putin needs to stop “protecting” the children of his nation from the love between two people of the same sex and focus on actual criminal acts affecting Russia under his homophobic renaissance. Hate crimes, especially against LGBT youth, have skyrocketed since the law’s passing, and arrests of LGBT citizens and protestors have become commonplace. A Russian man was even arrested last month for unfurling a rainbow flag during an Olympic torch relay.
Public opinion on homosexuality in Russia continues to be some of the worst in the world, with a national survey last year revealing that 74 percent of Russian citizens believe that LGBT persons should not be accepted by society, while 90 percent support the gay propaganda legislation. Putin hides behind the “will of the people” to allow these civil rights travesties to continue. Shame on him and shame on the IOC for yet again not upholding its own Olympic Charter when it truly has the ability to make a difference. How am I supposed to enjoy the 2014 Winter Olympics knowing that my gay brothers and lesbian sisters aren’t safe competing in Russia? And even more importantly, how can we ensure that the LGBT citizens of Russia are safe and protected from their own government after the spotlight of the Olympics has left their country?
Currently, there are only seven out athletes participating in the Winter Olympics—all women: Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz, Slovenian cross-country skier Barbara Jezersek, Canadian speed skater Anastasia Bucsis, Dutch speed skaters Ireen Wust and Sanne van Kerkhof, Dutch snowboarder Cheryl Maas, and Brockhoff. I’m rooting for them. I’m rooting for the United States. And above all else, I’m rooting for change.