Many of the people anxious to avoid making waves during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games speak of the need to respect Russian laws, even the dreadful laws repressing the freedom of expression of LGBT people and their allies.
Some base this stance on the argument that athletes are “guests” of their Russian “hosts” and that when you are a guest in someone’s home, you respect the rules of the house. Before a very welcome and sincere change of heart, U.S. runner Nick Symmonds compared the diplomatic silence he planned to keep at the recent World Athletics Championship in Moscow to visiting a family and not telling the parents how to raise their children. More recently, U.S. figure skater Jeremy Abbott has been quoted as saying, “Russia is hosting us. I'm not going to go into somebody's house and be like, 'Um, the way you decorate is hideous, and you need to completely redo this or I'm never coming back.' It's a little rude, so I don't want to say bad things about a country that's hosting the world, essentially.”
It’s a pretty lousy analogy.
The Olympic organizing committees are not hosts; they are not heads of households. No athlete asked for the privilege of competing in Sochi specifically. It was the Russians who requested the privilege of organizing the 2014 Winter Olympics for the benefits they felt the games would provide, not out of altruistic hospitality.
When you choose to visit a foreign country as a tourist or on business, you do indeed accept that you will have to obey its laws and customs. You are a guest; the nation is your host. On this basis, many of us have a list of countries we simply will not visit, both because we don’t wish to provide financial support to an unjust regime and we want to avoid having to comply with intolerable laws.
But it’s not as if those thousands of athletes in Sochi will be a bunch of wandering ski bums who just happen to find themselves on the shores of the Black Sea in February. The athletes (and coaches and trainers and support staff) have no choice whatsoever on the venue of the Olympics. If they want to compete, they must go there and nowhere else.
While she may want to respect her mother-in-law’s tastes when she heads to her home for Thanksgiving, an athlete should not receive threats from her national sports federation about the color she paints her nails. While public displays of affection may not always be appropriate in a fine restaurant, a skater should be able to embrace his husband when he wins a gold medal. And any person present in Sochi should be able to take the hand of any other person of any gender in the spirit of the Olympic Charter.
Clients and Suppliers
If not “host” and “guest,” what is the relationship of the International Olympic Committee to Russia and of Olympians to the country of the local organizing committee?
Russia sought the privilege of organizing the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. When the country won its bid, it signed on to the values and principles of the IOC, including Principle 4 (sport is a human right) and Principle 6 (no discrimination in sport) of the Olympic Charter. The government of Russia signed a contract with the IOC, and the IOC needs to enforce that contract.
The financial interests of the IOC are protected, because the contract allows it to assure its own sponsors that they will have visibility and exclusive rights for the games. Part of the requirements for bidders and hosts is ensuring that those rights are protected: there is a section in each Olympic evaluation report on the bidding country's legislative status. The focus of this is the execution of the games, and more important, the protection of the IOC sponsors' marketing rights.
If this were merely a business arrangement between the IOC and the local organizing committee, there would be little more to say: There's a contract, and the economic interests of both parties are defined and protected.
Where this model fails is in the IOC's definition of its own interests. It needs to look beyond its corporate needs and remember that it exists to promote sport and the values of sport. It may not have clients of its own, but it does have stakeholders, the most important of which should be the world's athletes.
When the IOC calls sport a human right in the Olympic Charter, it seems to understand that its raison d'être goes beyond signing contracts with local organizing committees. The charter is an implicit part of the contract, and it needs to be enforced. In the case of Sochi, this means the IOC must stop claiming to be satisfied by Russian declarations that the law doesn't ban gay athletes, but only those who talk about being gay, or that the law is not discriminatory because it applies to everyone “promoting nontraditional relationships.” The fact that antimiscegenation laws applied to both blacks and whites did not make them any less racist, and unless you think homosexuals are dangerous, there is no reason to “protect” children from them.
Even at the time of the contract, Russia did not satisfy the requirements of the Olympic Charter. And once it became clear that athletes, the stakeholders in the Olympic movement, were at risk, the IOC needed to be firmer and seriously use the threat of a ban on Russian athletes, a move to another city, or cancellation of the games to force legislative change.
This is hard for the IOC. But it cannot brandish morally potent words like “human rights” and “discrimination” and then claim they mean nothing when it comes time to act. There is still time to change things in Sochi. The IOC needs to show its commitment to equality by hosting a Pride House in Sochi. It needs to make clear that demonstrations of LGBT identity and solidarity will be accepted and supported.
While the selection process for 2020 is almost over, it is not too late to incorporate meaningful protections for all athletes in the contract between the host of these Summer Olympics and the IOC. And it is certainly not too late for the IOC to incorporate human rights and inclusion for all in its future selection processes and in the legal mechanisms for enforcing its contractual rights.
The IOC's own contractual partners need to use their commercial power to make this happen. IOC sponsors need to make clear that they will not continue to risk their brand with a partner that fails to act in their interests.
And if despite this, the IOC is unable or unwilling to write a decent contract or enforce its contractual rights, maybe athletes should just take their business elsewhere.
What Can You Do?
Pride House International has launched the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative, which invites everyone present in Sochi, including athletes, staff, vendors, spectators, and press, to take every opportunity to hold hands with a person of the same sex. For more information visit PrideHouseInternational.org. You can help spread the word by posting your own photo holding hands to the campaign photo blog, Hold Hands In Sochi.
MARK NAIMARK is vice president for external affairs for the Federation of Gay Games, the governing body for the world's largest sporting event open to all. Gay Games 9 will take place in August 2014 in Cleveland.
CHARLEY SULLIVAN is associate head coach of men’s rowing at the University of Michigan and a member of Equality Coaching Alliance.
A shorter version of this text first appeared on Slate.com.