The Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, are less than six month months away. But a controversy over a Russian law that bans propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations could cast a shadow over the competition and negatively impact the Olympic movement.
The text of the Olympic charter is rather straightforward. Article 4 reads:
"The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play."
The charter later says that any form of discrimination “is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
In addition, the European Convention on Human Rights states that “everyone has the right to respect for his private and family life, his home and his correspondence.” It also guarantees freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.
When former fencing gold medalist Thomas Bach was elected International Olympic Committee president this week, he pledged to represent all those in the Olympic movement.
“I want to lead the IOC according to my motto, ‘Unity in Diversity.’ I want to be a president for all of you. This means I will do my very best to balance well all the different interests of the stakeholders of the Olympic movement,” said the new IOC president.
However, Bach could find himself caught between the IOC charter, the European Convention on Human Rights, and Russian law.
In June, the Russian Duma passed, and President Vladimir Putin signed, a law that bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations to minors.” The bill defines “nontraditional” as “relations not conducive to procreation.”
The law bans distribution of information among minors aimed at “creating nontraditional sexual attitudes,” or such that “makes nontraditional sexual relations attractive.” It also bars communication that “equates the social value of traditional and nontraditional sexual relations” or that “creates an interest in nontraditional sexual relations.”
Violating the law carries fines and the threat of imprisonment for up to 15 days. Individual Russian citizens can be fined up to $1,500, organizations – up to $30,000 for infractions. If the “propaganda” is in the media or on the Internet, the fines are even higher. Foreign citizens face similar penalties, plus a possible detention and deportation.
Barrage of criticism
The law has faced widespread criticism.
U.S. President Barrack Obama said he was “offended” by the legislation. However, the president said he did not believe that U.S. athletes should boycott the Sochi Games.
Several human rights organizations - including Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign - have called on the IOC to speak out against the law before the Sochi Games. Minky Worden, director of Global Initiatives at Human Rights Watch, says the IOC missed its chance to speak up for human rights when Sochi was awarded the Games.
“These are [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s Olympics. It’s very important to him and to the Russian government. And if there had been adequate communication that there was a major problem with this anti-gay law, I think we wouldn’t be in this mess right now,” said Worden.
Because the Russian law is vague on what constitutes “propaganda,” there is confusion about what behavior is acceptable by both athletes and spectators. IOC Communications director Mark Adams said that the governing body received assurances from the Russian government that spectators or athletes would not be targeted.
“We have from the deputy prime minister and more recently from the prime minister - from the president - an absolute undertaking that the law will not affect spectators, athletes or anyone else attending the Games. Now, how that works in practice, that’s something for the Russian authorities to work out. But we have an absolute undertaking from them that the Olympic charter will be respected,” said Adams.
However, Adams said any protest by athletes or spectators within Olympic sites would be a violation of Olympic rules. Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch says the IOC’s response does not address the fundamental issue.
“For the IOC to say after the fact that they are not going to punish athletes who speak outside of the Olympics is really failing to address the fundamental question of how did this law get passed in the first place? The answer is it was a fundamental failure to communicate with the Russian government that discrimination is not allowed in the Olympic charter and the government needs to repeal the law,” said Worden.
Several organizations have called for a boycott of the Games. Short of that, gay rights organizations have called on sponsors - many of them based in the United States - to withdraw support.
Ross Murray is the director of news at GLAAD, a leading U.S.-based gay rights organization. He says the sponsors - including Visa, NBC, Coca-Cola and others - need to show that their human rights policies apply worldwide, not just inside U.S. borders.
“I think that there is going to be a lot of pressure on to those sponsors to demonstrate how LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) friendly they are in the United States - do those same things play out in other countries,” said Murray.
‘World is watching’
Nina Long is a co-president of RUSA LGBT, a U.S.-based group of Russian expatriates that opposes the new law. She says any controversy at the Games could embarrass the Russian government, something she says Games organizers very much want to avoid.
“You know, the world is watching. And they (the Russian government) have this law that they very much defend. And then the people who come - foreigners - some would break that law. But it’s going to be an international scandal if they try to arrest them. So the Russian government has put themselves in a very, very difficult and awkward situation, and we wish that they would repeal the law because that’s the easiest way to get out of it,” said Long.
The IOC Charter says that the goal of the Olympic movement is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind.” It also says that belonging to the Olympic movement requires compliance with that charter.
However, the IOC is not expected to apply much pressure for Russia to change its law.