Newly elected International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi for the first time this week. It shouldn’t have been a comfortable conversation.
After all, Russia’s February 2014 Winter Olympic Games have already become tainted with ugly rights abuses, including government-sponsored homophobia since the adoption in June of a federal law banning so-called “homosexual propaganda.”
As Putin and Bach inspected Sochi’s new rail hub together, did they discuss the unprecedented pickle Putin has put the entire Olympic Movement in? The June law that forbids positive comments about gay people to children, or in a setting in which they might hear, such as the media, has tipped off a crisis for the main Olympic sponsors: among others, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent got nearly 150,000 emails on this topic in just one week, at the urging of an LGBT rights group. More than 350,000 people have already signed a similar petition launched by another group.
The anti-gay law is in place partly because of the IOC’s deafening silence, and that failure to uphold core Olympic principles has left athletes, spectators, National Olympic Committees, sponsors, and governments exposed in an unprecedented way. Instead of a celebration of diversity and human achievement, the Sochi Games could turn into a vehicle for Putin to consolidate his popularity by focusing hatred on Russia’s gay citizens.
There aren’t many points of leverage to press Putin on human rights, but the Olympics are one. The Olympic Charter states that discrimination is “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.” The IOC has tried to fudge this unambiguous requirement by asking for “assurances” that the new law won’t be enforced during the Sochi Games. The Russian authorities have given those assurances – but have also said that the law is not discriminatory and will be enforced. The only way for the law not to affect the Olympics is to repeal it.
The IOC is perfectly well equipped to confront Russia on human rights abuses, and its mandate says it must “act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” There is plenty of precedent: in 1999, Afghanistan was barred from the Olympics for discrimination against women. From 1964 to 1988, South Africa’s all-white team was banned for racial discrimination. When reporters arrived in Beijing to cover the 2008 Summer Olympics and found the web censored by China’s “Great Firewall,” the IOC successfully pressured Beijing to open the Internet.
President Bach should recognize that Russia’s degrading the Olympic values of human dignity and non-discrimination will indelibly tarnish his tenure as IOC president. With just 100 days to go until the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony, will the IOC find its voice and make sure these Olympics won’t go down in history as the “Anti-Gay Games?” The Olympics are associated with human achievement and dignity, but Russia’s Games are shaping up to be anything but.