It’s too late to change the venue of the 2014 Winter Olympics from the Black Sea resort in Sochi, Russia. But a new Russian law, passed in June, that criminalizes “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships” creates a quandary for gays who hope to compete in the Games, and a chance for the International Olympic Committee to stand up for its athletes.
The broadly written law, purportedly passed to protect children, could be used to arrest athletes who display signs of affection for their same-sex partners on air. At first, the IOC claimed the law would not be in effect during the Olympics. But Russian officials have made clear that it will. Alexander Zhukov, head of Russia’s National Olympic Committee, says gay athletes are welcome to compete in the Games “without any fear for their safety whatsoever” as long as they do not “put across [their] views in the presence of children.”
It is far from clear what that means. Positive comments about gays during interviews appear to be illegal now in Russia. But what about an athlete’s affectionate shout-out to a same-sex partner? Moreover, the law provides encouragement to ultranationalist groups that taunt and beat gays in Russia with impunity. Police stood aside as thugs beat up gay activists who had staged a “kissing protest” outside the Kremlin to object to the new law. Then police detained the gay activists.
In an attempt to avoid a showdown, the IOC has warned that the Games are no place for political protests. Such activism, in the committee’s view, shifts the Games’ focus from the common humanity that unites the world to the often serious differences that divide nations.
But hugging a same-sex spouse isn’t a political protest. Russian officials ought to make clear that it will not be treated as such. Heads of state should think twice before attending the Games in Sochi. But a boycott by athletes would squander an important chance to showcase the skills and dignity of gay athletes, just as Jesse Owens’s gold medal victories at the 1936 Olympics in Germany made a mockery of Hitler’s notion of a master race.
This is a chance for the International Olympic Committee to stand up for its athletes.
Russia is not the only country in the world to have laws against homosexuality. But such countries ought to realize that they will be far less attractive venues for international Games, as an increasing number of athletes and spectators are openly gay. It’s too late to move next year’s Olympic Games out of Russia. But there is ample time for soccer organizers to find a better venue for the 2018 World Cup.