IOC: No grounds to challenge Russian anti-gay law as Sochi Olympic Games approach

September 26, 2013

The International Olympic Committee said Thursday that it had no grounds to challenge a Russian law widely perceived as anti-gay, angering LGBT and human rights activists, who say they will make their case with sponsors and governments taking part in the Sochi Winter Olympics.

On a final inspection tour before the opening ceremony in February, IOC Chairman Jean-Claude Killy declared himself satisfied with the situation in Russia “as long as the Olympic Charter is respected.” The charter describes sport as a human right and rejects discrimination. He pronounced the venues ready and predicted a fabulous Olympics.

“Another thing I should add,” Killy said in French, as translated by the Associated Press. “The IOC doesn’t really have the right to discuss the laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organized. As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied, and that is the case.”

Rights advocates said they were furious but not surprised at the IOC’s unwillingness to wrangle with Russia, which is hosting the Games for the first time since 1980 and spending $50 million to do so, the most expensive Olympics yet.

Andrew Miller, a member of the New York chapter of Queer Nation, said the IOC had capitulated to a repressive regime. “It has sold out the lesbian and gay community in Russia, when it could have been a powerful force for their protection,” he said.

All Out, an organization based in New York that advocates for equality around the world, said it intends to urge its members to pressure sponsors and governments — what it calls the economic engine behind the Games — to defend the Olympic principle of nondiscrimination.

“If the IOC is unwilling to protect the values of the Olympic Movement,” Andre Banks, executive director of All Out, said in a statement, “then athletes, sponsors, fans and participating governments must speak out and defend the integrity of the Games.”

The group collected more than 300,000 signatures on a statement urging the IOC to criticize the Russian law and delivered the petition to IOC headquarters last month.

The Russian law clearly violates the Olympic Charter, said Ty Cobb, director of global engagement for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based civil rights organization dedicated to ending discrimination against the LGBT community. He plans to mobilize members, estimated at 2 million across the United States, to express their displeasure.

“We’re going to call on our members and on sponsors to say the IOC has to change this,” he said.

President Vladimir Putin — who fought hard to win the Olympics for Sochi — signed the law that prohibits discussing “non-traditional” sexual relationships in the presence of minors or suggesting that such relationships are equal to “traditional” ones. The law is ambiguous enough that teachers are afraid to utter the word “homosexual” in their classrooms. Gay Russians say it also has encouraged homophobia and violence. Russian officials counter that it is meant only to protect children.

But officials have interpreted it in different ways. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Kozak, assigned to oversee the Games, told Russian news agencies this summer that the law would have no effect on the Olympics.

“There will be no diminishing of rights based on sexual orientation at the Olympics, neither before nor after,” he said. “No one should have any concerns whatsoever. People can get on with their private lives, and spread their respective advantages and attraction among adults. The main thing is that this doesn’t touch children.”

More recently, however, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko told a Ria Novosti sports reporter that athletes or anyone else “propagandizing” gay relationships in Sochi would be “held accountable.”

Miller, of Queer Nation, said the IOC was giving cover to sponsors by saying that there were no problems with the Russian law. “They are saying everything is fine and there is no reason to take issue with the Russian government’s stance on human rights,” he said.

Queer Nation, organized to end discrimination and repression against the LGBT community, targeted one sponsor last month — with members gathering under a big Coke sign in Times Square and dumping bottles of Coke into the sewer, Miller said.

On Monday, it set up a picket outside the Metropolitan Opera, which was performing “Eugene Onegin,” an opera by Tchaikovsky, a gay Russian composer. The protesters distributed leaflets criticizing the law and accused two pro-Putin performers — including conductor Valery Gergiev — of killing Russian gays with their silence.

“Queer Nation is going to continue to target the IOC,” Miller said.

The law most probably won’t be enforced against foreigners in Sochi, said Innokenty Grekov, an associate with Human Rights First, an international group based in New York and Washington, but it will be used to limit the freedoms of gay Russians in clear violation of the Olympic Charter.

His organization plans to keep up pressure on U.S. representatives to the IOC. “They can continue to advocate against this law,” Grekov said.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has said little in public, although in August it wrote a letter to athletes that criticized the Russian law but fell short of urging any action against it.

“We strongly support equal rights for all and believe that laws restricting the right to act and speak in support of the LGBT community are inconsistent with the fundamental principles of the Olympic and Paralympic movements,” the letter said. “We have shared our views with the IOC. At the same time, however, we cannot forget that we are first and foremost a sports organization. Our mission is to help enable American athletes to win medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Our overriding obligation is to deliver a well-prepared team and to support our athletes, all of them.”

Liz Clarke in Washington contributed to this report.

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