The short story is that Russia has passed some simply unbelievable laws that can only be defined as “anti-gay”. The laws ban “homosexual propaganda” and are so broad they include everything from peaceful human rights protests to a gay couple holding hands in public. Anyone found guilty of charges under these new laws are subject to prison time and stiff fines.
You’ve probably heard something of the movement to have the 2014 Winter Olympic Games moved from Sochi in Russia to …well, anywhere else, although the popular opinion seems to be that Vancouver, Canada would probably be the best prepared, as they were the most recent hosts.
Of course, the solution to send the games back to Canada is not an ideal one. In fact, with some of the facilities and infrastructure already gone or repurposed, it’s not even really a realistic solution, but it is a solution. The ideal goal is to affect positive change and have the law revoked, but that is appearing to be an equally monumental task.
People are speaking out all over the world to ask their own nations to boycott the Games and to urge the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to do something about the situation.
Actor George Takei (“Sulu” from Star Trek, as if you didn’t know) is actively campaigning to have the Olympics venue changed to Canada, and he’s throwing his support behind a change.org petition trying to put pressure on the IOC to make that change. As of writing this article, there are over 160,000 signatures on the petition. The petition is also being supported by actor Stephen Fry and author Anne Rice. There are multiple petitions on change.org asking for athletes and spectators to support equality through unanimous protest, countries to boycott the games, sponsors to condemn the laws, and so on.
A man I admire in so many ways, actor Stephen Fry, has written an impassioned plea to the IOC and to David Cameron, his country’s Prime Minister to not allow Putin and this law, “the approval of the civilized world.” It’s a deeply moving letter, you should take the time and read it.
…And WTF IOC?!?
With all this pressure being put on the IOC, on Tuesday they announced that they forbid athletes to speak against the Russian anti-gay laws! Part of the IOC’s charter says “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”. An IOC spokesperson said, “The IOC has a clear rule laid out in the Olympic Charter, which states that the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration”.
The IOC apparently lives in a dream world, where the Olympics are just about athletic competition and nothing more. An academic paper co-written by M. Patrick Cottrell of Linfield College and Travis Nelson of the University of Wisconsin-Platteville titled “Not just the Games? Power, protest and politics at the Olympics” determines that ever since the 1936 Berlin games, no Summer Games has occured without some form of political protest. Just from 2000-2008 there were 17 political demonstrations at the summer Games.
In Sochi, if an athlete decides to make a political statement, not only do they face punishment under this new law – including arrest, fines and deportation – but they face further sanctions under the IOC policies, including expulsion from the Games.
It’s not like religious statements haven’t been made, either. How quickly the IOC forgets the “Olympic prostitutes”, the two Saudi women, Wojdan Shaherkani competing in Judo, and Sarah Attar, the Saudi 800m runner. Shaherkani came more or less to compete athletically, but Attar participated solely to make a statement against Saudi Arabia’s oppressive attitudes toward women, and who faced a barrage of abuse and threats from muslim men in her homeland for participating in the 2012 London Olympics. The women’s 800m race was turned into one big political and religious statement for equality and against intolerance. Without Googling, I bet you can’t tell me who won the race, but you remember the “Olympic prostitutes”.
It’s just beyond ironic that the rings of the Olympic symbol make a kind of rainbow. The individual rings represent the continents that take part in the games, but the interlinked rings also represent the lofty ideal of humans overcoming political differences and existing – at least for a short time – as a group of equals. The logo itself IS a political statement for equality, but the IOC has a long history of having feet of clay on matters of inequality and intolerance like this.
Hayley Wickenheiser, soon to be six-time Olympian in women’s hockey brought into focus the IOC hypocrisy of choosing not to politicize themselves in light of its stated goals best: “The Olympics is really one of the only places in the world where people should be free to get along and perform in harmony.” The Russian law, of course, prevents that.
…And WTF Obama?!?
President Barack Obama, also responding to pressure to boycott the 2014 Winter Olympics, stated that the United States will not support any boycott of the Sochi Games, saying that the boycott would be unfair to American athletes. It really surprised me. This is that tacit approval of the world that Stephen Fry writes about in his open letter. President Obama seems to have forgotten that the United States boycotted Olympic Games hosted by Russia before, in 1980.
I can only hope that Obama is envisioning some kind of politically galvinizing moment like the famous salute given by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos (pictured on the right) on the medal podium in the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico to protest a long legacy of racism. While the solidarity shown in that image is the lasting memory of that moment, the two athletes were eventually expelled from the games by order of the IOC for this salute. (And yes, there’s a reason why they are holding up different hands and in sock feet.)
There was no protest of the Nazi salute constantly used in the 1936 games in Berlin, but I run dangerously close to “Godwinning” this article.
I don’t know what Obama intends with this position, but personally, I’d like to see an en masse protest from the athletes, coaches, and anyone else who can, from all countries. Protest. Protest loudly, protest visibly, protest peacefully, and protest in such numbers that Russian authorities cannot possibly arrest everyone. Overwhelm the intolerance with solidarity, something which transcends national and international politics and stands as an unassailable statement of respect, equality and humanity.
Reality in Russia
To give you an idea of the reality in Russia now, a recent Pew Research poll has reported that about 3/4 of the population hold views that are most easily described as “anti-gay”. Protests are becoming increasingly violent.
One story that has recently emerged is that of a popular television anchor, Anton Krasovsky. After watching his country descend into a hateful and dangerous place to live, he balled up his courage and declared on air, “I’m gay, and I’m just the same person as you, my dear audience, as President Putin, as Prime Minister Medvedev and the deputies of our Duma…”. His audience and staff cheered their support for the announcement, and after the show he went to his dressing room and “cried for like 20 minutes”. Within hours he was fired, his corporate accounts and emails were shut down, and his presence was completely expunged from the channel’s website. “They deleted not only my face from the website, but also all of my TV shows, as if I’d never really existed,” Krasovsky told CNN.
When considering this issue, please keep in mind that while 75% of the population may support these laws to varying degrees, the other 25% in Russia do not agree with these laws that are anachronistic, draconian, backwards, intolerant, bigoted, prejudiced, and many other more colourful phrases. Not only do these Russians have to live with the embarrassment of their country making such laws that crush human rights, but some have to live in fear under those same laws that are so broad they essentially criminalize homosexuality.
At the same time that Vladimir Putin outlawed “homosexual propaganda”, Putin signed into law a bill that punishes with jail time and fines those who offend religious believers, but that’s another post for another time. Why do we have so much difficulty simply respecting each other as human beings?
I promise in my next post I won’t be so ranty.
:: Edited Aug 18 2013 to add:
A fantastic statement was made by Kseniya Ryzhova and Tatyana Firov. The two members of the Russian 4x400m relay team kissed in protest of these laws as they stood on the podium to accept their gold medals at the IAAF track championships in Moscow.