Gold Medal Hypocrisy at the Sochi Winter Olympics
26 February 2014, 08h30 EST (UTC-5)
The Toronto Star
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The Toronto Star published my commentary article below, on the final day of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
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In the soaring words of the Olympic Charter, the ultimate purpose of the Olympic movement is “the preservation of human dignity” to the exclusion of “discrimination of any kind”. But high words cast a long shadow over low deeds, and much of the global drama around the Sochi Olympics has been an object lesson in barefaced hypocrisy.
When Russia was criticised in the international media for its 2013 law banning “homosexual propaganda,” Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to reassure the world that the Sochi Olympics would still be free of any discrimination.
Yet, during the same interview, he paused to associate homosexuality with paedophilia and to warn tourists in “non-traditional sexual relationships” to “leave children alone, please”.
Since then, Russian authorities have arrested approximately twenty-four people for protesting in favour of gay rights, including four people whose crime was to hold up a banner bearing the words of the Olympic Charter.
When the IOC was inundated with demands that it oppose the Russian law, former IOC president Jacques Rogge pleaded impotence: “The International Olympic Committee can not be expected to have an influence on sovereign affairs of a country,” he said.
Yet, at every Olympic Games, the IOC makes extensive demands on the sovereign affairs of nations, which governments must meet as a condition of hosting the Games.
It was to satisfy such demands the British parliament passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 and included sections to give the Olympic committees extraordinary rights over ordinary English-language words that could never have been privately trademarked under existing laws, words such as “games”, “summer”, and “London”. The Act also compelled the Secretary of State to “have regard to any requests or guidance from the International Olympic Committee” in creating further regulations.
Protecting its marketing strategy was important enough to the IOC for it to influence the “sovereign affairs” of the United Kingdom, to change domestic law and curtail freedom of expression. Protecting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered people was simply not important enough to the IOC for it to exercise a similar level of influence on Russian law.
When citizens called on western governments to act, many politicians were happy to curry popular favour with denunciatory speeches and political gestures. “We wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said Barack Obama, shortly before deploying a delegation to Sochi pointedly comprised of openly gay retired athletes.
Yet, Obama’s clarity does not appear to extend to the eight states in his own country that also have laws prohibiting “promotion of homosexuality” to children. Alabama and Texas go furthest, requiring public schools to teach children “that homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public.” More brazenly still, they insist that schools teach “that homosexual conduct is a criminal offense,” notwithstanding the fact that the US Supreme Court invalidated American anti-sodomy laws eleven years ago.
It is easy for politicians to cast themselves as heroic figures by railing against actions in other nations. But when they are silently complicit in similar abuses on their own soil, they not only expose the emptiness of their theatrics, but also degrade the principles for which they purport to speak.
If the Sochi Olympics have but one lesson, it is that no one has a monopoly on virtue.
Vladimir Putin poses as a protector of children, while making gay youth outcasts in their own country. The IOC poses as an organisation above politics, while unabashedly bending national politics to its commercial interests. Barack Obama poses as a defender of human rights by grappling with foreign governments, while he shies from the fight in domestic politics.
But the Sochi Olympics may yet help realise the grand words of the Olympic Charter, not in spite of all this hypocrisy, but precisely because of it.
The Games brought Russia’s homophobic law to global prominence, and have motivated ordinary people around the world to join hands with the very individuals the law was meant to isolate. They made the words of the Olympic Charter a rallying cry amongst athletes and spectators who have sought to hold the IOC to its rhetoric. They caused politicians to take a stand on the international stage, which in time may reassure those politicians that there is a constituency for the same principles of justice in domestic politics.
Nothing in Sochi did more to honour and advance the Olympic Charter, than the worldwide fight for equality unleashed by these Games.