Russia's Homophobic Law & the Olympics' Plan to Do Nothing About It

By Chris Hoenig

Russia’s new anti-gay law has taken effect just in time for final preparations for this winter’s Olympic Games in Sochi, and Olympic athletes are being threatened with sanctions if they don’t comply.

The bill, signed by President Vladimir Putin in late June, imposes the equivalent of thousands of dollars in fines on anyone attempting to hold a gay-pride rally or share information about the gay community with youths. The broad wording of the law allows for punishment to be handed out for discussing gay rights anywhere that a minor can hear and allows police to arrest foreigners who are suspected of supporting the gay community.

Around the world, supporters of gay rights have railed against the law, calling for boycotts and protests (backlash that Russia’s top athletics official has called an “invented problem”). Bars in the U.S., Canada, Britain and Australia have halted sales of Russian vodka and organized vodka-dumping parties, pouring bottles of the booze into sewer drains. “Stoli and other Russian vodka brands take pride in their heritage and past, a past now tarnished by a leader favoring the condemnation and jailing of anyone portraying the LGBT community in a positive light,” one New York City bar said in a Facebook post. “We will always and forever stand by the LGBT community in any way we can.”

President Obama has rejected the idea of American athletes’ boycotting the Winter Olympics, however. “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the anti-gay and -lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia,” the President said earlier this month. “One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kind of attitudes that we’re seeing there. And if Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then it probably makes their team weaker.”

Olympic Organizers Do Nothing

In February, more than 2,500 athletesas well as thousands of friends, family and fanswill descend upon the Black Sea resort city of Sochi for the Olympic Games. International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacques Rogge claims he’s received assurancesthough he’s still not completely clear or comfortable about themfrom the Russian government that athletes and visitors will not be affected by the law. “We are waiting for the clarifications before having the final judgment on these reassurances,” Rogge said.

But statements from the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) suggest otherwise. The general message: This is the law, deal with itand those who try to show support for the gay community might face sanctions.

In response to one request for comment, the IOC pointed to a rule in the committee’s charter that prohibits “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda” at the Games. The charter also makes clear that “a sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation,” Rogge said, though the law could stifle the rights for athletes to speak freely. “As far as the freedom of expression is concerned, of course, this is something that is important,” Rogge said. “But we cannot make a comment on the law.”

The USOC’s Chief Executive Officer, meanwhile, has done interviews in which he says that American athletes will have to abide by the law. “The athletes are always going into countries with laws different than his or her own country. They’re going to agree with those laws in some ways, they’re going to disagree with those laws in other ways,” Scott BlackmuntoldRussia’s R-Sport.”It’s our strong desire that our athletes comply with the laws of every nation that we visit. This law is no different.”

An application to establish a Pride House, a meeting place at the games for gay and lesbian athletes and their friends, was rejected by the Russian government. The IOC has made no public comments on the permit denial. Pride Houses were set up in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Games, as well as last year’s Summer Games in London.

Sponsors, meanwhile, also remain largely silent, declining to use the power of their purse strings to push for change. Buzzfeed compiled a series of statements from the Olympics’ 10 largest partnersstatements so similar that they seem to suggest a coordinated responsethat said little except that they back the IOC’s statement that “sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation.” Many of the companies instead pointed to their own support for the LGBT community. Procter & Gamble (No. 7 in the DiversityInc Top 50) and The Coca-Cola Company (No. 38) are among the lead sponsors, as well as Atos, Dow, GE, McDonald’s, Omega, Panasonic, Samsung and Visa.

NBCUniversal (a division of Comcast, No. 49 in the DiversityInc Top 50), which has shelled out some $775 million just for the rights to air the games, faces the potential of having its staff arrested or fined for publicizing interviews with athletes who demonstrate support of the gay community. The network has echoed the IOC statement, saying it “strongly supports equal rights and the fair treatment of all people.” But NBC Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus also suggested that coverage of the games would not ignore the controversy. “If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympic Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it,” he said.

Athlete Protests Already Under Way

Athletes are already protesting the law on Russian soil. At the IAAF World Athletics Championships (track & field) in Moscow, two Swedish athletes painted their nails in rainbow colors as a show of support. The Swedish Olympic Committee responded with a threat of disqualification.

A pair of female Russian relay runners are denying that their post-race podium kiss was a form of protest. “We’ve trained for eight years in the same group and there’s a really good friendship between us,” Ksenia Ryzhova said of the kiss she and Yulia Guschina shared after winning gold in the 4×400-meter relay. “It was just happiness for our team.”

One athlete not hiding his support for the gay community is American middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds. The 29-year-old dedicated his silver medal in the 800 meters to his gay friends back home. “Whether you’re gay, straight, black, whitewe all deserve the same rights,” he said. “If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I willshy of getting arrested.”

Law Affects Other Events

Opponents of the law and opera fans are calling on New York’s Metropolitan Opera to dedicate its opening-night performance in September to the gay community. The production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin is being conducted by Russian artistic director Valery Gergiev and stars Russian diva Anna Netrebko.

The Miss Universe contest will continue to be held in Moscow, despite fears over the safety of gay staff and fans. The Donald Trumpowned organization will be missing a co-host, however. Andy Cohen of the Bravo network announced he will not be returning to the event due to fears for his safety. “The law is that anyone under suspicion of homosexuality can be arrested,” he said.

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