Who Can Force Russia to Change Its Ways?

LGBT athletes will soon compete for their shot at the Olympic squad, but they still aren’t sure whether they will be safe in Sochi. Can anything be done?

BY Michelle Garcia

August 13 2013 6:00 AM ET

Some Want a Boycott, Others Prefer Action
In January 1980, President Jimmy Carter took action when he issued an ultimatum to the Soviet Union: abandon the invasion of Afghanistan, or the U.S. would not participate in the Olympic Games that summer. A few months later, Moscow's Olympic Village was void of more than 60 nations, including Canada, Japan, Israel, and Iran. Politically, it was a bold message in the midst of the Cold War, but the boycott provided a sore spot for athletes who had trained for years or even lifetimes for their moment at the Olympics.

Three decades later, President Obama said at a press conference that the United States would not boycott the winter games.

“We've got a bunch of Americans out there who are training hard, who are doing everything they can to succeed,” he said. “Nobody is more offended than me by some of the antigay and lesbian legislation that you’ve been seeing in Russia.”

Meanwhile, though the U.S. Olympic Committee did not comment for this story, members are said to be in active discussions with the State Department over American athletes' safety. USOC CEO Scott Blackmun notified the heads of multiple governing bodies of sports in the U.S., that a plan is under way to protect "every American in Sochi."

Though some LGBT people in Russia are asking foreigners to abstain from coming to their country and buying its products, especially for the Olympics, some, like Konstanin Iablotckii, encourage LGBT Olympians and spectators to participate in planned protests.

"I do not only recommend [that LGBT competitors come to Sochi], I call out all participants to come to Sochi and show their solidarity with us by a number of actions during the opening ceremony, and the Olympic games," Iablotckii said, including hand-holding protests and raising rainbow flags.

Athletes such as American figure skater Johnny Weir (a Russophile who is married to a Russian man) and New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup have both said they were concerned about Russia's laws but that they still planned to compete with the goal of qualifying for the games.

In February, Weir advised athletes and spectators not to "be aggressive, don't wear a big rainbow flag fur coat," or call attention to themselves. Now that the law passed, however, Weir still encourages people to compete, but his advice takes a more stern tone.

"The fact that Russia is arresting my people, and openly hating a minority and violating human rights all over the place is heartbreaking and a travesty of international proportions," he wrote in a column for a Virginia newspaper, the Falls Church News-Press. "I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia’s stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof. I beg the gay athletes not to forget their missions and fight for a chance to dazzle the world."

British comedian Fry now says it would not be realistic to move the games at this point, but he called on athletes who are LGBT allies to wear a rainbow pin or another symbol to show solidarity and raise awareness around Russia’s gay rights problem.

“All our athletes and all athletes in the games should find a symbol whether it's during the performance of a piece, or at the end of it whether its the slalom, or whatever it is, and definitely on the medal podium … just to show solidarity,” he told the BBC Saturday. “To take some of the sweetness of victory out of Putin's mouth, to show they are thinking of the gay people of Russia who are being tormented and brutalized every day, and indeed are committing suicide at alarming rates.”

Restricting expression for LGBT athletes and spectators, however, does not stop with the Sochi Olympic games. This year's track and field world championships, the 2017 World Bobsleigh Championships, and the 2018 FIFA World Cup will all be held in cities across Russia. These events, coincidentally, are all sporting events that would typically be welcoming of a Pride House, just like the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil, and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. Naimark says that through the years, governments and sport regulators alike have become more welcoming of LGBT athletes and the support of the Pride House, but that's not the case in Russia, where sporting events will continue to be hosted.

While the idea of a boycott is still being weighed, the real difference, says David McFarland of United for Equality in Sports and Entertainment, will be more sports organizations like FIFA and the IOC coming together to demand that Russia change its ways, and the sporting industry may be the best candidate for the job.

"Sport has never been more global or influential, but we're living in a new era of sport as a business," McFarland said. "As we celebrate the athletes and the Olympic games, what we're also seeing is the intersection of business and sport, but in Russia, we're seeing the integrity of sport being violated."

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