The Incoming Russian Roulette

The rapidly evolving equal rights crisis in Russia is prompting Olympic anxiety and may trigger an international civil rights crackdown — or breakthrough.

BY Steve Weinstein

November 11 2013 5:10 AM ET

Barring a dramatic downturn in U.S.-Russian relations, in a few weeks, American athletes will join their counterparts from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite calls for a boycott from LGBT activists and their straight allies.

They cite Russia’s passage of a broadly worded law against gay “propaganda,” and another that, if passed, would take away the children of gay couples, as a violation of the Inter- national Olympic Committee’s requirement that the host country respect human rights. In some Russian cities, LGBT protesters and anyone perceived to be gay or even sympathetic to their plight have been set upon by street gangs while police passively look on or join the mob. Nationalist thugs have proudly posted videos of adult gay men and teenagers being savagely beaten after they responded to phony Internet postings, without fear of reprisal.

The outside world has responded with official condemnation and street protests. What began with calls to boycott Russian vodka has quickly spread to include demonstrations from Toronto to Amsterdam. The leaders of Western democracies, including President Barack Obama, have criticized lawmakers who, as conservative Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain wrote in a Russian newspaper op-ed, “codify bigotry against people whose
sexual orientation they condemn.”

March on St. Petersburg in May; pro- test sign at the Russian embassy in Quito, Ecua- dor, reads “Love always wins”
Above: March on St. Petersburg in May

Several straight members of the U.S. Olympic team have indicated they will “pack a rainbow pen,” in the words of Brian Burke, a director of the U.S. Olympic hockey team. The August World Track & Field Championships in Moscow may have provided a sampling of what may be in store for the Russians in Sochi: The Finnish sports minister waved a rainbow flag, a Swedish high jumper painted her fingernails in a rainbow, and American runner Nick Symmonds told Russian media, “We all deserve the same rights. If there’s anything I can do to champion the cause and further it, I will, shy of getting arrested.”

The size and scope of the protest movement clearly took the IOC by surprise. It tried to defuse the situation with a statement reassuring the world, “The legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the games.” When the newly elected IOC president took a call from Russian President Vladimir Putin, he told reporters, “We did not discuss the law.” He might have been joking, but it showed how much the issue has moved to the forefront. IOC delegates and officials have been reduced to bickering over whether rainbow pins and nail polish will be allowed at the games.

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