The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, are just 50 days away as anticipation is building for the international sporting event, but more attention has been focused lately on the nation’s controversial anti-gay legislation, risking the Games being overshadowed by politics.
Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibits athletes from using the pulpit of the Games to protest, but given the severity of Russia’s laws, which prohibit gay “propaganda” to minors, it might be difficult to silence political sentiment. Outspoken opponents of the law may easily disregard Rule 50 to address an issue that is receiving massive media attention.
On Tuesday, President Obama tabbed Billie Jean King, an openly gay tennis legend, as one of the official U.S. delegates, in a thinly veiled message that the administration opposes recent Russia’s anti-gay laws. The other delegates include hockey player Caitlin Cahow, who is openly gay, and famed gold-medal figure skater Brian Boitano, who announced he is gay on Thursday.
Dissatisfaction with Russia’s human-rights stances has been far-reaching with multiple world leaders distancing themselves from Sochi.
A recent White House statement said that Obama’s schedule prevents him from attending the Games, while Vice-President Joseph Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama will also be absent. French President Francois Hollande and German President Joachim Gauck also declined to go to Sochi, though both attended the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. Even Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite announced she won’t attend because of Russian’s human rights record.
Russia Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has made assurances that gay athletes will be welcome, but his comments failed to quell international condemnation. Numerous public figures have called for a boycott of the Sochi Games sparking, at the very least, awareness of laws that are punishable by arrest and 15 days in prison.
The policies may cast a dark shadow over the competition. The 2014 Winter Olympics could potentially be more remembered for public demonstrations against anti-gay legislation rather than athletic achievement. Earlier this month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that the Russian government had set up a special protest zone in Sochi.
With the growth of social media platforms, a protest zone serves as perhaps more of a photo opportunity rather than an effective medium to communicate a message. Offering a public response is easier than ever, and it may be difficult for the IOC to truly silence opposing viewpoints.
For the most part, the Olympics have not been used as a venue to exercise political gestures. The 1968 Summer Olympics image of American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists on the medal podium in support of black unity and power remains one of the rare moments of public protest.
If there is an athlete who might serve to influence the Sochi Games with a statement against anti-gay laws, it could be Blake Skjellerup, an openly gay short-track skater representing New Zealand. The 28-year-old missed out on the 32 automatic bids for the 500-meter race, coming in 33rd place, but could still compete if one of the qualifying nations does not a send a skater.
Should he get the chance to compete in Sochi, Skjellerup would be the only openly gay participant at the Games, and he has already stated that he will wear a rainbow flag pin. Skjellerup competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, and publicly announced he was gay in May 2010.
"I believe in being proud of who you are, and living a life free from fear and oppression,” said Skjellerup.
“If an athlete who is gay, whether out or not, wins a medal in Sochi, the statement will come from that itself. Being openly gay in anti-gay Russia is a demonstration, and coming out to the world and press at such a time would lend great insight and solidarity to the human rights effort of LGBT people globally, and LGBT people in sport."
Skjellerup is a longshot to win a medal, but should he compete at the Sochi Games he would almost certainly become an emblematic figure of an Olympics in which gay rights is the most prominent social issue.
This prompts questions of the role of an athlete or a celebrity in promoting social change.
One perspective is that on the world stage a host nation may deserve to be publicly rebuked for clear human-rights abuses and a well-known athlete has the responsibility to bring this to the world’s attention. Perhaps the most similar parallel could be made of the media pressure Tiger Woods received to push for a more diversified membership at Augusta National Golf Club. Many believed that as the face of the sport, and due to his mixed background, Woods had a responsibility to take a stand.
On the other hand, there is the perspective that human rights groups and government officials should not be upstaged by public figures, and that sports should be about athletic competition rather than political statements. In 1996, NBA guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was criticized for refusing to stand for “The Star-Spangled Banner” because he felt the American flag was a symbol of oppression.
There are some openly gay athletes who caution against overstating the socio-political aspect at the Olympics, citing the perceived bad taste of overshadowing the event by grandstanding.
Tim Goebel, an openly gay American figure skater and bronze medalist at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, believes that the spirit of the Olympics is to separate politics from sport, and that athletes should refrain from promoting their cause.
“It’s supposed to be about representing your country, it’s not supposed to be a political statement. Period. It’s disrespectful to the team and to the country,” said Goebel.
Social media often shines a light on an athlete’s views, and Goebel believes that too is something that should be silenced until the Olympics are over.
“It would probably be wise to keep their Twitter accounts quiet until they cross the border. Sometimes athletes, under the pressure or in the heat of the moment, may do things or say things that they would probably regret later. Let’s just hope that doesn’t happen,” Goebel said.
According to the 33-year-old Illinois native, the true disappointment has been the IOC, which has come under fire for their lax interpretation of how “homosexual propaganda among minors” does not breach the Olympic Charter.
The Olympic Charter states: “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
“The IOC is completely folding on this issue,” Goebel said. “It’s pretty disgusting.”
Tennis great Martina Navratilova and former NBA big man Jason Collins, who are both openly gay, recently urged the IOC to do more to support gay athletes. The comments came months after Thomas Bach, who was recently elected President of the IOC, had been told by Putin during an inspection of Sochi that Russia was working towards making “participants and guests feel comfortable in Sochi, regardless of nationality, race or sexual orientation.”
Such perceived accommodating words may do little to minimize the awkwardness, anger and general unease that spending perhaps weeks in a nation where gay athletes and guests may feel unwelcome.
Matt Savoie, an American figure skater who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, and who also competed in Moscow and Saint Petersburg between 2000 and 2002, said he always felt comfortable skating in Russia, which has a great deal of respect for the sport. But he feels that it would be difficult to ignore the anti-gay laws as an openly gay person.
“If I was a gay athlete competing in this Olympics, it would be on my radar,” said Savoie.
“I would want to be sure that the athletes, and their families, and the spectators were going to be able to feel safe and would be able to be themselves.”