Fifty-two Olympians from the United States, Canada and Australia, with dozens of medals between them and including 12 competitors in Sochi, have launched a trenchant criticism of the lack of action to force Vladimir Putin’s administration to scale back laws that forbid “gay propaganda” aimed at under-18s and have led to a wave of homophobic attacks.
Principle six of Olympic charter
The signatories to the “principle six” campaign – named after the clause in the Olympic charter that guarantees non-discrimination – include the American snowboarding gold medalist Seth Wescott, the Sochi-bound Canadian bi athlete Rosanna Crawford and the Australian four-man bobsled team.
Other famous former Olympians who are backing the call include the tennis players Martina Navratilova and Andy Roddick, the former Leeds United footballer Robbie Rogers, and the four-time gold-medal-winning diver Greg Louganis.
“As an athlete, as an American, and as a believer in equal rights and equal opportunity for everyone, I realised I needed to speak up because that’s not where we are today in sports,” the American rower Esther Lofgren, a gold medallist at London 2012, told the Guardian.
“The mission is to support all athletes to be themselves and be free to be athletes.”
Megan Rapinoe, who won gold in the women’s football in London, said she believed the IOC should have done more and made it clear that this was not a political issue but a basic question of human rights.
“I understand and respect that the Olympics are not the time nor place for political statements, but this is far beyond any kind of statement,” she told the Guardian.
“People’s lives and their wellbeing are in danger, and that goes far beyond anything the Olympics stand for. I think it is important to talk about it and have an ongoing conversation during these Games, and not have this issue silenced.”
Caitlin Cahow, an ice hockey player who won Olympic silver in Vancouver and was named by the US president, Barack Obama, alongside Billie Jean King as one of two gay US ambassadors in Sochi, is also backing the call.
Nicky Symmonds, an American runner who criticised the laws in Moscow after winning a silver medal at the athletics world championships last year, said the experience persuaded him that athletes needed to speak up on the issue.
“While there, I saw video of people being shoved to the street for expressing their love and the image bothered me very much,” he said.
“I also spoke with members of the gay community in Russia who said they had been treated better under Soviet rule than they were currently being treated under Putin’s leadership, and wanted to lend my support in any way I could.”
Can athletes call for equality at games?
This week, when pressed by the Guardian newspaper, the IOC president, Thomas Bach, confirmed athletes would be free to call for equality in press conferences but that a ban on making political statements during competition or medal ceremonies would stand.
But that was immediately contradicted by the Sochi chief executive, Dmitry Chernyshenko, who said athletes who wished to speak out against the anti-gay legislation would have to do so in a special “protest zone”, 18km from the Olympic Village.
“There is a lot more that could be done by the Russian government, the IOC and sponsors,” said Andre Banks, the co-founder of All Out, which launched the campaign in partnership with the anti-homophobia group Athlete Ally.
“They want this story to go away and have been totally unwilling to make any real concessions regarding the law. There are precedents. In Beijing, China had to change its laws following pressure from the IOC. In London, the IOC put a lot of pressure on the Saudi Arabian government to allow women to compete.”
Human rights organisations hope to increase the pressure on Russian organisers as next week’s opening ceremony nears, but many national Olympic associations have prioritised the need to concentrate on the performance of their athletes and avoid distractions.
Amnesty International, which is also concerned about a wider crackdown on human rights under Putin, this week staged a protest outside the Russian embassy in London and delivered a petition signed by more than 10,000 members of the British public.
“The IOC have a responsibility”
In the US, LGBT groups have forced the Olympic sponsors Coca-Cola and McDonalds to pull or amend social media advertising campaigns after hijacking them to highlight their lack of action to put pressure on the IOC and organisers. “The IOC have a responsibility to deliver the Games successfully, but they also have a responsibility to deliver the Games in line with the values of the Olympic movement,” said Banks.
Putin, who has invested US$51b in making the Sochi Games a showcase for Russia, attempted to explain the law in a recent interview, insisting it was not at all discriminatory and was only meant to protect children.
“We are not forbidding anything and nobody is being grabbed off the street, and there is no punishment for such kinds of relations,” said Putin. “You can feel relaxed and calm [in Russia], but leave children alone please.”
The gay propaganda law was partly meant for internal consumption, though it also fits into Putin’s attempt to position Russia as the last bastion of traditional values in Europe, which has become more pronounced in the past year.
But the Russian president has been surprised by the reaction that it has produced abroad and the Kremlin is irritated that so many column inches have been written about the law in the run-up to Sochi.
The pronouncements of Russian officials have hardly helped calm the situation. The Sochi mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, dismissed the concerns completely in an interview with the BBC this week, claiming that there were no gay people in Sochi.
Sochi resident speaks
His statement, while obviously ridiculous, shows that many Russian gay people have to lead hidden lives, and in official circles very few gay Russians are out of the closet. Not everyone is in the shadows, however, and the Sochi local Andrei Ozerny published a blog post addressed to Pakhomov on Wednesday saying: “I would like to tell you that there are many gay people in Sochi – and I am one of them.”
Ozerny said Sochi had traditionally been relatively tolerant towards gay people: “Actually Sochi is one of the most tolerant cities in our hideously homophobic country. Of course, there are various unpleasant incidents, but overall the gay people that are a mythical phenomenon for you fit perfectly normally into city life.”
However, he added, the increased focus on gay issues in the run-up to the Olympics had led to the feeling that the community was guilty for all the negative coverage that the Sochi Games had been receiving, and had thus increased tensions.
Leading Russian gay rights groups are not planning to travel to Sochi, partly because of the expense involved in getting to the city and staying there, as well as bureaucratic hassles with getting into the wider Sochi area during the Games.
Gay pride marches and protests in support of gay rights have routinely been banned in Sochi in the past, as in all Russian cities. When activists attempt to rally anyway, they are often detained by police.