Thursday, 10 October 2013
So the IOC is “fully satisfied” that Russia’s anti-gay law doesn’t violate the Olympic Charter. Principle 6 of the Charter says: "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." Sexuality isn’t mentioned specifically (though, in the light of recent events, it seems clear to me that it should be), but it is surely understood within the term “otherwise”. However, according to Jean-Claude Killy, chairman of the IOC Coordination Commission for Sochi 2014, this only applies to Olympic territory, not to the country as a whole. He is satisfied that there will be no discrimination of any kind in the Olympic village, and adds that the IOC doesn't really have the right to discuss the laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organised. Does this also apply then to any other country with human rights transgressions? If that is the case, can we see a time when the Olympics are taken to Zimbabwe for instance?
As it happens, the IOC don’t quite seem to believe the assurances themselves, as they are already warning athletes that any support for LGBT issues will be seen as political, and any athlete using the Games for political demonstration will be punished accordingly. The message that seems to be coming across here is that it is ok for Russia to discriminate against LGBT people, but not ok for anyone to speak up about it. Athletes are being advised to keep a low profile, deny who they are, if they are gay. This being the case, surely that would mean a legally married gay athlete might win a medal, but would not be allowed to publicly celebrate that event with their husband or wife because that would be against Russian law. Is that what you are saying, Mr Killy? I’m just asking for a little clarity on the issue, because clarity is something that has been sadly lacking. The only thing that seems clear is that the IOC will do anything to appease Putin and the Russians, and very little to stand up for LGBT rights.
At the recent U.S. Olympic Media summit in Park City, Utah, the US Olympic Committee had briefed athletes, telling them to stick to talk of sport and duck any issues regarding the Russian anti-gay law. Bravely Olympic gold medallist, skier Bode Miller, refused to be silenced. The IOC’s rules prohibit athletes from making political demonstrations at Games sites, but he took it as an opportunity to speak out about the duplicity that exists in sport. “There are politics in sports and athletics, and they’re always intertwined,” Miller said. “Even though people try to keep them separate, or try to act like they’re separate, I think asking athletes to go somewhere and compete and be a representative of a philosophy and all that different crap that kind of goes along with it, and then tell them they can’t express their views or they can’t say what they believe, I think is pretty hypocritical and unfair. But, you know the fact is, crappy situations like that have been happening for a long time. I think it’s absolutely embarrassing that there’s countries, there’s people, that are intolerant, that are ignorant.”
That, of course, is the nub of it. The IOC, and political leaders in the West constantly talk about keeping politics out of sport, but sport is political. I have no doubt that Putin sees the Olympics in terms of politics. There was a time, after the fall of the Berlin wall, when Russia was losing its place on the world stage, and Putin has been intent on winning that back by whatever means necessary. The Olympics will be a chance for him to show off Russian wealth and power, and he is using them in exactly the same way Hitler used the Berlin Olympics back in 1936. The IOC chose then to ignore all warnings about what was happening to Jews in Germany, and look what happened. In hindsight that might have seemed inexcusable, but it was much easier to ignore the warnings back then, much harder to find the evidence. Now it is not. The internet has seen to it that, try as they might, the Russians can’t hide what is going on in their own country, but, surprisingly, or maybe not, depending on how you view the IOC, officials are still ignoring all reports of the violence being perpetrated towards LGBT people, most of it silently condoned by the police and the Russian government. And, let’s face it, whatever happens within the Olympic village, there have already been veiled threats from Russian officials that, outside it, the new law will be vigorously enforced. The only advice that seems to be coming from the IOC is to keep a low profile and go back into the closet.
In other words, the IOC has totally failed to comprehend the scale of the problem in Russia, no doubt because of the inherent homophobia that still exists in sport as a whole. Come on, you can’t tell me that, out of the over 2000 athletes who competed in London in 2012, only 23 were gay. The reason there were only 23 is because the majority of LGBT sportsmen and women fear discrimination and ostracism from within their own ranks, and until that is addressed then I doubt very much will change.
However, it is not only LGBT rights that are in question in Russia. Not so very long ago, two members of the girl group Pussy Riot were given prison sentences for daring to stage a protest against Putin. One of the women, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, went on hunger strike in prison to protest lengthy work shifts, miserable payment for work, and the existence of illegal prison disciplinarian groups made up of inmates loyal to the administration, complaints held up by Members of Russia’s Presidential Council for Human Rights. Tolokonnikova was moved to a hospital on medical grounds and has ended her hunger strike, but has vowed to start it again if her demands for an investigation into rights violations in her penal colony, the removal of "psychological pressure" on inmates in the colony who talked about penitentiary conditions to inspectors, and her transfer to another penitentiary are not met.
More recently the Russians have seized a Greenpeace ship that was protesting against Russian oil drilling in the ecologically sensitive Arctic, accusing the activists and the two journalists on board of piracy, a crime which carries a 15 year jail sentence in Russia. This is a trumped up charge if ever there was one, and yet another example of Russia throwing its weight around. It’s my belief that the winter Olympics should never have been given to Russia in the first place, or in fact to any country that has a poor record on human rights, but can we ever expect the IOC to stand by its own charter? When money is at stake, I very much doubt it. Unfortunately, by the time the Games actually start in Sochi in February next year, I fear that all talk of human rights and human rights transgressions will be completely forgotten by the media as it gets swept up in the quest for medals and sporting glory. After all, nothing is more important than sport!