From Russia, No Love For Gay Athletes

The major controversy over the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will be held in Sochi, Russia, has so far been about whether there would be enough snow to hold sports that depend on it. But there’s another controversy brewing that involves the sexuality of athletes, as Russia’s government is considering legislation that would outlaw “homosexual propaganda,” meaning public events that promote LGBT rights and public displays of same-sex affection will be illegal.

The legislation has sparked concern among out athletes like New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup, who told USA Today that he was concerned about the legislation. “I don’t want to have to tone myself down about who I am,” Skjellerup said. “That wasn’t very fun and there’s no way I’m going back in the closet. I just want to be myself and I hate to think that being myself would get me in trouble.”

Even if the legislation doesn’t pass (it is expected to), Russia has already taken steps to fight homosexuality in its society and at its Olympics. Last year, a Russian judge banned the national Olympic committee from setting up a Pride House, a feature of the past several Olympics that hosts LGBT athletes. A Pride House, the judge wrote, would “undermine the sovereignty and the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation” because it “contradict[s] the basics of public morality and the policy of the state in the area of family motherhood and childhood protection.” Meanwhile, an IOC spokesperson took a bold stand by telling USA Today that it was “too early for the IOC to comment on Russia’s proposed anti-gay legislation because it has not been voted on.”

There were 23 open athletes at the 2012 London Olympics, a sharp rise from the 10 that participated in Beijing in 2008. While they faced an atmosphere of tolerance in Britain, which approved marriage equality this week, their Winter counterparts won’t be greeted similarly.

The fault for that lies with the International Olympic Committee, which has shown little tolerance for racism (even though Russia is no saint in that department either) and sexism but has not fought for protections for gay athletes in the same manner. “We aren’t responsible for the running of or setting up of Houses,” an IOC representative said when the Pride House ruling was made. “So in this case it isn’t a decision of either us, or the organizing committee in Sochi. From our side, the IOC is an open organization and athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games.”

Here, though, is what the IOC is responsible for:

The purpose of the Olympic Movement is to:
– link sport with culture and education;
– promote the practice of sport and the joy found in effort;
– help to build a better world through sport practised in a spirit of peace, excellence, friendship and respect.

That’s the Olympic Mission, one that is undermined by the IOC’s unwillingness to take a stand for the gay athletes that will be in Sochi. And the IOC isn’t alone. FIFA, soccer’s global governing body, awarded the 2018 men’s World Cup to Russia and the 2022 version to Qatar, one of 79 countries voted in favor of removing sexual orientation from a United Nations resolution condemning arbitrary executions last year. So three of world’s largest and most popular sporting events will take place in countries that are openly hostile to gay athletes and fans, and neither organization will bat an eye at that fact (FIFA president Sepp Blatter, in fact, drew outrage when he suggested in 2010 that gay fans in Russia and Qatar “should refrain from any sexual activities.”)

Organizations like FIFA and the IOC have played valuable roles in using their sports and their influence to make sports a more open and equitable place for people around the world. The IOC’s insistence that all countries include women in their delegations to the London Olympics broke barriers in countries like Saudi Arabia, while FIFA’s Football for Hope program has been used to expand access to the sport, education, and public health across poorer African nations. Both organizations have in the past been agents of social good, which makes it so much more of a shame that they refuse to take stands to protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered athletes and fans they serve.

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