The 2014 Winter Olympics are scheduled to take place from February 7th to 23rd in Sochi, Russia. The Olympics are the largest sporting event worldwide, bringing together millions of people from across the globe. The Games provide an exquisite platform where cultures meet and friendly competition thrives. However, the upcoming Olympics in Russia have been the cause of much controversy recently. Over three months ago, Russia’s lower house of parliament passed a law against the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”. The vote had 436 in favor, 0 against it. The new legislation was implemented two months ago, after President Vladimir Putin signed it into law. The controversial bill makes the public discussion of gay rights and relationships illegal anywhere children might hear it. There are significant fines of up to $31,000 for providing “information about the LGBT community to minors, holding gay pride events, speaking in defense of gay rights, or equating gay and heterosexual relationships.” Numerous Russian and international human rights organizations have come out in protest of the new discriminatory laws, claiming that it is bound to increase homophobia in the country. There is also concern for LGBT athletes and visitors to the country in 2014.
Amidst public outcry and pleas of boycott from various organizations, the International Olympic Committee issued a statement stating that they had “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” The IOC went on to say that the “Games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, and that applies to spectators, officials, media and of course, athletes.” While having the IOC address concerns for the LGBT community during the Games is a positive step, there is still much doubt in people’s minds as to what the laws will really mean in February. The architect of this controversial law is Vitaly Milonov, a St. Petersburg politician, who initially implemented a local version of the bill in his city. Milonov has come out and said that it is not true that Russia will not be enforcing the law during the Sochi Games, and that Russian laws should be enforced there, irrespective of who is breaking them.
Implications of this discriminatory law are already apparent now. President Putin has already issued an executive order banning all protests for a 10-week period during the Sochi Games. This is clearly an attempt to intimidate LGBT supporters and squash protests during the Olympic games, even though it is being sold to the public as a matter of security. Just last Monday, Russian police raided a St. Petersburg art gallery, and seized numerous “offensive” paintings that mocked President Putin, Prime Minister Medvedev and Deputy Milonov by depicting them in lingerie against a backdrop of a rainbow flag. Milonov himself, who visited the gallery and disapproved of the paintings, instigated the raid. This is a striking example of how the new anti-LGBT legislation is being used by Russian authorities in ways it was never intended to, and is now even censoring artistic expression. Moreover, as human rights defenders have feared, homophobic attacks and discrimination have increased, with reports of one gay teenager dying after being tortured by Neo-Nazi vigilantes.
So what can be done about these new inequitable laws targeting the LGBT community? Is a boycott of the Olympics really the answer? Personally, I would reject a boycott of the Olympics, as it would only hurt the athletes in the end. In 1936, Jesse Owens stunned the world during the Summer Olympics, where he won four gold medals in track and field as an African-American in Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler and his Nazi ideology were truly ridiculed when an individual of a so-called inferior race defeated Aryan athletes in the Games. It is truly unfair for people that have dedicated their entire lives to their sport to have to suffer due to unjust laws of a host government. The greatest protest the athletes can stage is to enter the Games and take home the gold in support of all minority communities back home, just as Jesse Owens did in 1936.
As for the future, the International Olympic Committee should ensure that host countries are picked with utmost consideration, so that racist, homophobic, or other bigoted state policies do not spoil this spectacular event that unites the world. As the IOC’s mission statement declares, the IOC is to cooperate with “competent public or private organizations and authorities in the endeavor to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace.” Let’s hope that in the future, the organizing authorities do believe in the mission of the Olympics and wish to promote peace for all.