A few years ago red flags were raised when a Russian judge ruled that Pride House, a nonprofit organization supporting LGBT athletes, would be banned from the Sochi Olympics. It was the first time such an organization had been blocked by Russian officials. The judge went a step further and labeled Pride House, which was present at the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2012 London Games, an “extremist” association that could provoke “social-religious hatred.”
Since then Russia has slowly stripped gays and lesbians of their liberties and freedoms while allowing them to be the target of violence with little police protection.
The passage of the law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” essentially became a state-sponsored green light for homophobes across the country to harass and in some cases murder LGBT Russians. The law imposes fines and prison sentences on individuals and media organizations that provide information about the LGBT matters to minors; it bans gay pride events and forbids anyone from speaking in defense of gay rights. Just stating that your lesbian sister deserves the same rights as heterosexuals like yourself could see you spending 15 days in a Russian prison.
The law basically paints LGBT people as sexual predators who are looking to brainwash Russian children into joining their “lifestyle.” Call this law ignorant, misguided, or just a fantastic way to create a fantasy enemy, but it passed without one vote of opposition.
Last year a commercial aired in Russia that showed a 61-year-old man luring “virgins” to the voting booths because he would offer a great “first time.” Sounds a little creepy? Bizarrely, Russian lawmakers didn’t feel Russian children needed to be protected from this clip.
Gays are blamed for many of Russia’s problems, starting with the low birth rate (strangely, alcoholism was not fingered as a culprit). Russian lawmakers also state “that gays should be barred from government jobs, undergo forced medical treatment, or be exiled.” Sound familiar? In 1933, German Jews were removed from the civil service, and gypsies and prostitutes were forced to undergo medical treatments.
In 2013 a Russian government television executive stated on national TV that “gays should not donate blood, sperm, or organs, and their hearts should be burned or buried after their deaths.” In 1933, Jews were barred from public swimming pools for fear of “contamination” and from riding German horses because they might “soil” them.
The most significant impact of the law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” however, has been in dehumanizing homosexuals, much in the same way that discriminatory laws and inaccurate portrayals of Jews helped strip them of their humanity in 1933.
Despite the fact that Jews were being made invisible in Germany –– barred from public places, kicked out of universities, removed from jobs as doctors and lawyers, stripped of their citizenship, prevented from having intercourse with “non-Jews” –– and that the Sinti and Roma were being sent to the Marzahn concentration camp two weeks before the Berlin Olympic Games in 1936, the International Olympic Committee chose to look the other way.
Now it’s 2013 and we find ourselves at a similar crossroads.
Do we, as fans of the Olympic movement, have the responsibility to turn off our television sets for the duration of the Olympics? Should we boycott Russian products and avoid visiting the country? Should we boycott the sponsors of the Sochi games? My short answer is yes.
Some say that politics and sports shouldn’t mix, especially at the Olympics.
But the Olympics has been an arena for political expression for more than 50 years –– think of the gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos giving the Black Power salute against racism in 1968, the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, Cathy Freeman celebrating her victory by carrying the aboriginal flag in 2000. Even the IOC brought politics into the event when it arranged for representatives of the two Koreas to walk together at the opening ceremonies in Sydney.
Some may say that these were positive or necessary political actions. But at the time, they weren’t always seen in that light. Taking a stand against racism didn’t make life easy for Tommie Smith or John Carlos. But in hindsight, we view these moments as powerful acts of courage; they embodied and upheld the Olympic ideals of inclusion and equality.
Should the horrific violence that is growing in Russia against LGBT people, the internment of political opponents, the persecution of journalists, and the harassment of nongovernmental organizations engaged in health and social services weigh more heavily on an athlete’s conscience than missing two weeks of competition? Should they take a stand and speak out during the competition? What will the repercussions be?
Some athletes, like the gay skater Johnny Weir, feel boycotting the Sochi Olympics would be devastating for the athletes who have worked years for the chance to compete.
As an athlete who competed in international competitions and as a former captain of the University of California, Los Angeles, swim team, I understand this dilemma. The problem is, can you participate in a global sporting event that the Russian government is using to legitimize its reputation? Can you accept an invitation from a host that will jail you for saying, “I’m gay and that’s OK?”
The IOC tells us that it “has received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.”
The German government also made assurances to the IOC back in 1933, 1934, 1935, and 1936. It put the harassment of Jews on “pause” for the duration of the Games. While athletes competed and tourists cheered, Jews were mostly left alone, “No Jew” signs were temporarily taken down, and the circulation of anti-Semitic newspapers was minimized. Are these the types of actions the IOC hopes will take place in Sochi? Are we to close our eyes to what happens before and after the “pause”?
Vitaly Valentinovich Milonov, the coauthor of the pernicious Russian legislation, states that the law “has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, and that the government has no right to suspend it.”
In other words, censorship and repression will be in full effect.
Seventy-seven years ago, Karl Ritter von Halt, the president of the Committee for the Organization of the 1936 Winter Games, defended Germany’s despicable laws by stating, “Events in Germany are solely to do with domestic politics. In individual cases sportsmen have been affected. If a certain anti-German press feels called upon to deliver these domestic German matters on to the Olympic stage, then this is extraordinarily regrettable and shows their unfriendly attitude toward Germany in the worst possible light. ”
Russian officials believe the matter is a domestic issue that is of no concern to foreigners or the IOC. The problem is, by inviting and soliciting the Olympics to be held in Russia, the government embraced each and ever element of the games. By making discrimination lawful, Russia violates its promises to the IOC. Does this mean that the Olympics should change venues or that the Russian Olympic Committee be sanctioned?
Adolf Hitler could have been alone in his new Olympic stadium in 1936. It might have made for a more appropriate image of the regime than the photos of adulation and goodwill that the Berlin Olympic Games eventually provided him with. The IOC could have taken the steps to make that happen. But it chose not to. And its inaction haunts us to this day.
Alexander Zhukov, president of the Russian Olympic Committee, declared, “The effect of the Sochi games will be manifold; for instance, it will provide an opportunity for the world to see Russia in a better light.”
Maybe what the world really needs is greater light shed on the Russian citizens who are courageously speaking out against the escalating discrimination in their country. And what better way to honor the Olympic spirit than by standing in solidarity with them while we let Putin enter an empty stadium in Sochi.
EMMANUELLE SCHICK is a Spanish-Canadian film director who currently lives in Paris. She is a former Spanish junior swimming champion and record-holder. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, Rue 89, and Slate in France.