In June, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a law banning the promotion of “non-traditional relationships” to minors. This law is the most recent in a series of legislation that targets gay rights.
Russia’s new law attacks pro-gay “propaganda,” but the definition of this is unclear. Public displays of affection or style of dress which could be interpreted as propagandistic can be punished with fines or jail sentences. Russia is hostile to homosexuals, with one 2013 public opinion poll, conducted by the Levada-Centre showing an 85 per cent opposition to legalizing same-sex marriage. The ban and its perceived flexibility have provoked outrage in Western media, in part because Russia has issued warnings that foreign athletes promoting homosexuality will be held accountable by law during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Protesters are marching in Toronto and North American bars have begun boycotting Stolichnaya vodka. British actor Stephen Fry has called for the games to be held in a different city.
The Russian government seems conflicted over whether their new rules will apply to foreign athletes. The International Olympic Committee said they received assurances last month that the law would not apply to athletes. Igor Anansikh, a Russian government official in the ministry of sport, also said that the laws would not apply. However, Vitaly Mutko, Russian minister of sport, says foreigners will not be exempt. He added that “the corresponding law doesn’t forbid non-traditional orientation, but other things: propaganda, involvement of minors and young people.” According to Mutko, the ban is not intended to punish homosexual athletes, but to prevent them from using their celebrity status to encourage deviance among Russian youth.
To what extent should politics be a part of the Olympics? And to what extent should the Olympics be seen as a lighthouse for the defence of human rights? While the IOC can’t always choose host countries with clean human rights abuse records (few such countries exist) international spotlighting creates opportunity to raise awareness about injustices in host countries which pressures their governments to change.
Defending the safety and dignity of our athletes is tantamount, but we also need to be mindful that the Russian government wants the Olympics to go smoothly and controversies during the competition will only blemish Russia’s international record. Detaining Olympic athletes would be risky and Russia would be vilified by governments worldwide.
Taking a stand for equality is important, but a single sporting event cannot reverse deeply ingrained national attitudes. Even if our gay athletes participate without public “propagandization” of their sexuality we will still have won a subtle, but important victory by implying they are no different.
Coverage of the Olympics should still examine the issue of gay rights, but shouldn’t appear preemptively aggressive before Russia clarifies its stance. Boycotts won’t change Russia’s stance on homosexuality, but having athletes present sends the message that sexuality doesn’t have to be a polarizing and politicized topic.
The Olympic ideal envisions a time of peace, when nations of the world gather to celebrate the capabilities of the human body. Politics and nationalism have soiled the games in the past, but each gathering presents new chances to solidify international relations and erode cultural barriers. We would like to see our athletes enter the arena with heads high, distinguished by their determination rather than sexual orientation.