Olympic Committee pressuring Russia over anti-gay law, but don’t expect a boycott

August 9, 2013

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, left, inspects a model of the planned Sochi Olympic facilities with other Russian officials. (Dmitry Astakhov/AFP/Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee is asking Russia for greater assurances over the country's recent law banning "gay propaganda," a sign of growing international pressure on both Russia and the IOC over the winter Olympics to be held there in February. Although IOC President Jacques Rogge said in a Moscow news conference today that he'd been given "oral reassurances" by a Russian deputy foreign minister, he added that those were insufficient and that they'd asked for written "reassurances," which in turn were also apparently not enough.

"There are still uncertainties, and we have decided to ask for more clarification as of today," Rogge said. "So we are waiting for this clarification before having a final judgment on these reassurances."

It's not clear precisely what reassurances the IOC is looking for. But, despite calls from activists and others for a boycott, the IOC has given no indication that it's considering canceling; an IOC spokeswoman said that boycotts "do not solve anything but simply punish Olympic athletes." The IOC also does not appear to be challenging the overall law so much as the possibility that it might be applied in Sochi when the games are held there.

"The Olympic Charter is very clear. It says that sport is a human right and it should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation," Rogge said in Moscow. "And the games themselves should be open to all, free of discrimination, so our position is very clear."

In other words, the dispute appears to be over whether or not Russia will promise not to enforce its anti-gay law on Olympic athletes or most attendees. That may be a disappointment to those hoping the IOC would use the games as leverage to force Moscow to roll back the law itself (I'm not sure this would work anyway), but it is something. The head of the International Association of Athletics Federations said Thursday, in comments that appeared to suggest the IAAF was putting the onus on athletes not to run afoul of the "gay propaganda" ban, that "I don’t have the feeling there is a problem whatsoever. ... There is a law that exists. The law has to be respected. Some things have to be respected."

Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko had earlier raised the possibility that gay athletes could face arrest under unclear circumstances. He'd told Russian news agency RIA Novosti, "An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn't banned from coming to Sochi, but if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable." The meaning of "propagandize" is unclear, but the law against gay "propaganda" has been used to arrest gay rights marches.

Mutko later appeared to walk this back a bit, saying on Thursday that Russia has “a constitution that guarantees to all citizens rights for the private life and privacy." He added, “Rest assured that all the athletes and all the sports organizations should be relaxed."

The Sochi games pose something of a conundrum for athletes who oppose Russia's anti-gay rights law. Staying at home is unlikely to do much to pressure Russian lawmakers or bring attention to the issue. But protesting at the games could, owing to the law's vague language about what qualifies as "propaganda," be potentially risky.

Rennae Stubbs, a former Olympian tennis player from Australia who is gay, published an article Thursday urging athletes to attend the games. "Making a point by punishing those that have worked so hard to represent their nation in an Olympic games is pointless," she wrote. But like many activists who oppose a boycott, she seemed to have few other ideas for how to constructively oppose the laws, writing only, "We need to hold the IOC members accountable for their choices in host cities and countries."

There were similar debates over whether or not to boycott the 2008 summer games in Beijing, which coincided with a monk-led uprising in China's Tibetan region and a violent crackdown. The IOC opposed a boycott and almost no athletes or political figures refused to attend (the major exception was Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland). Then as now, many athletes and activists reasoned instead that they should pressure the IOC to take human rights more into account when selecting host cities in future. Sochi had actually been announced by 2008, but public pressure for the IOC to take human rights into greater consideration when selecting host cities did drop off substantially after the Beijing games closed.

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