Outsports / LGBTs aren’t asking for special treatment in Sochi: they’re asking that the Olympic Charter be enforced
I agree with Cyd Zeigler on many issues and admire his contributions as a journalist and an activist to LGBT sport and the goal of equality. But I don’t agree with the essay he just posted on Outsports.com on the role of athletes competing in the Sochi Olympics following reactions to the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines to National Olympic Committees, reminding athletes of the prohibitions of “Rule 50” with regard to “political” speech.
Zeigler says (in short) that LGBT activists are asking for special treatment in allowing for “political” speech in opposition to Russian antigay laws, and that we should suck it up, let the athletes get on with their sport, and continue to work for equality in other venues.
It’s a contrarian point of view for an LGBT-oriented publication, and takes some courage, but it’s based on what seem to me to be straw man arguments: that calls for sport for all are somehow “political”, that the IOC is only responsible for the Olympics, and that LGBT advocates are calling for “special treatment”.
Cyd is correct that the calls for boycotting or moving the 2014 Winter Olympics were not going to work. Even if they were effective, they would have backfired with the Games going on nonetheless, but with some athletes excluded due to the actions of the “gay lobby”. These calls often came from well-intentioned but not always well-informed voices. Some still maintain that calling for a boycott brought attention to the issue of antigay laws in Russia. Perhaps, but wouldn’t a united call for action that could actually get results have been better? There are many proposed actions other than boycotts, including those of Pride House International: an IOC-hosted Pride House in Sochi, and the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative. These were, and are, achievable goals.
Had Thomas Bach been in office a year ago, and had our demand been formulated more clearly as one for promoting sport for all and not “special treatment” for LGBTs (this was not our language, but the interpretation given by the IOC), the IOC might have responded favorably. Indeed, I would be surprised if there were no concrete gestures from the IOC during the Games. While there is no private or IOC Pride House in Sochi, we have some favorable responses (too few, it’s true) from National Olympic Committees to host Pride House events in their hospitality houses. And our call for “remote Pride Houses” outside Russia has had a great response, with plans now underway in Europe, North America, South America, and Oceania.
As for the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative, it’s still as valid as ever: athletes, spectators, media, everyone in Sochi can simply hold hands whenever safe and possible with a person of the same sex to show… well, to show whatever they want. Solidarity with Russian LGBTs? Support for LGBT inclusion in sport? Opposition to the IOC or the Putin government? It can mean nothing or anything, and that’s what makes it a realistic plan.
Plans for pink ski caps or rainbow flags at opening ceremony were too complex or too vulnerable to Russian (or IOC) interference to implement. Indeed, campaigns that require any equipment or garments are probably doomed to failure: the Principle 6 gear is nice, and it reminds the IOC of an important point (one raised by the FGG in 2010 back when Principle 6 was still Principle 5), but athletes won’t be wearing the gear in Sochi: they have to wear their team uniform. That means that hand-holding is still the most easily implemented means of action, one that we can all support by posting a photo to holdhandsinsochi.tumblr.com.
In fact, of all the boycott-related plans, the only one that had any chance of effectiveness came from… Cyd Zeigler. Earlier this year Cyd wrote that the Russian team should be banned from the 2014 Games. In reality, the action would have (should have) taken the form of Russian athletes competing, but under the Olympic flag. This was highly unlikely, but is not unheard of, and is not the nuclear option of a boycott. Indeed, we may see such a scenario in Sochi, not with the Russian team, but with the Indians. The Indian Olympic Committee is currently suspended from the IOC, and its athletes in theory banned. Although the Indians have just agreed to comply with IOC demands and will thus be reinstated as a member of the IOC, this will only be effective when new elections are held. If those elections are not held to IOC’s satisfaction by the time of opening ceremony, Indian athletes will still compete, but under the Olympic flag. This would not be the first time such action is taken.
Even without National Olympic Committees sitting Sochi out, there are forms of boycott that remain effective. No spectator is obliged to go to Sochi. No media is obliged to go there, or if they go there, to ignore important social issues. Heads of state and other dignitaries can choose not to attend ceremonies, as it the case of the President of Germany and the EU Commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship. While calls to boycott IOC sponsors have died down, they retain their potential as an effective means of pressure.
But back to the gays. It is not because politicians are involved that an issue is “political”. The IOC declares that sport is a human right. The IOC also declares that discrimination in sport is incompatible with the Olympic Movement, and that whether explicitly or not, discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is prohibited. Put those together, and you get a situation where a regime that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation is in violation of the Olympic Charter.
That makes the Russian situation the IOC’s business. Not just because Russia abuses human rights, but because Russia abuses the rights of athletes to compete in sport. Can an athlete train if she’s in jail for simply saying she supports her lesbian teammates’ right to free speech? Can an athlete compete fairly if he needs to worry about the consequences of embracing his husband at the end of a race? This is not about politics: it’s about sport.
Sochi is under a dome. Access, physical and electronic, is filtered. Security will be extreme. And, in contradiction with a common-sense observation that Russian law applies everywhere in Russia and at all times, Putin has declared that the antigay laws will not be enforced in Sochi during the Games. Let’s take those assurances at face value, a not unreasonable position given the bad PR that would result from an athlete being deported from the Games. Outside the dome, outside of Sochi and before, during and after the 2014 Games, Russian LGBT athletes and allies are still facing discrimination in the practice of sport. One human right, the freedom of expression, is for political reasons placed in arbitrary opposition to another, freedom to practice sport. It is not athletes who have politicized this issue: it’s the Russian government.
The IOC has declared itself to be the owner of world sport. The Russian Olympic Committee is a member of the IOC. The IOC needs to tell the ROC that this law is unacceptable, not because gays are special, but because sport is for all. This has not happened, and is unlikely to happen any time soon.
Zeigler cites the historical legacy of IOC inaction on social issues. Indeed, some historical examples are useful. A refusal of racial discrimination led to what is probably the only successful sports boycott in modern history, the banning of Apartheid South Africa from world sport (including the Olympics).
Calls for LGBT inclusion in sport are no more and no less political than the calls to ban a country with institutionalized racial exclusion. But examples are not always apt. When they raised their fists in Mexico City, Tommie Smith and John Carlos (supported by Gay Games founder Dr Tom Waddell) were not opposing something happening in Mexico, or a matter touching their own right to take part in sport. In Berlin, Jesse Owens didn’t have to make a speech or wave a flag to say that he was a target of racism (at home and in Nazi Germany): the color of his skin spoke for itself.
A far more valid comparison to the situation of LGBTs is that of women. If the world, and world sport, treated a racial group the way they treat women, there would be outrage. Instead, discrimination against women is treated as “tradition”, often justified by the sacrosanct rights of religion. The IOC has long turned a blind eye to regimes that exclude women from sport, and focuses only, and only under duress, on including (often token) women’s participation in the Olympics themselves. Worse, it is complicit in sport that discriminates against women by requiring women to be veiled, their bodies covered, by excluding women from stadiums, and by segregating them in women-only events such as the IOC-supported Women’s Islamic Games.
Setting aside the everyday situation of women in sport, discrimination against women remains in the Olympic Games themselves: the number and type of events, the meager participation of women in some delegations, and a host of symbolic gestures. What progress has been made has been through activists, and not for some abstract cause, but for the principle that women should be able to practice sport. Should we, or athletes themselves, not be able to say the same thing when the the exclusion comes from homophobia?
In the meantime, based on my experience at the meeting last month between Thomas Bach and the FGG and the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, I’m convinced that Bach and others in the IOC are sincere in their belief that Rule 50 protects athletes from outside pressure, and creates a zone of freedom to play sport. And I’m also convinced that Rule 50 will be implemented in a reasonable fashion. Responding to a journalist’s question is not unwarranted political agitation. Wearing the rainbow pin approved by the IOC for the London Olympics cannot be banned. But because the IOC has not given positive assurances as to allowed behavior, athletes cannot be sure, and will therefor self censor.
In Sochi, we should of course applaud LGBT athletes. But we also need to make sure they will be able to say they are LGBT in Sochi. Bella Brockhoff should be able to embrace her partner. And Blake Skjellerup (fingers crossed) should be able to wearing his London 2012 rainbow pin without fear of arrest or sanction.
I agree with Cyd (and Thomas Bach) that athletes should not be pressured to do anything other than compete fully and fairly, and that action needs to come from governments and sports organizations. But those who want to remind the world of sport that sport is for all should not have to be afraid to speak up… even if they’re athletes. Who better to speak for the right to practice sport than athletes themselves?
Until the IOC gives clear directions on what behavior is allowed and what is not, athletes will err on the side of caution, and an important message – about sport, not politics – will be silenced.