On Friday 7th February the Olympic Torch will be lit in the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi, and the 22nd Winter Games will be underway. For just over two weeks after that we will be treated to some of the most hair-raising sports imaginable as the world’s finest athletes go so far as to throw themselves off mountains in their bids for eternal glory.
Before we get caught up in all that excitement, I want to briefly detail one aspect of the controversy that is swirling around the Sochi Games: the restrictions on freedom of expression in Russia and how those restrictions are undermining the whole spirit of the Olympic movement.
In the last two years, Russian lawmakers have passed three pieces of legislation curtailing free speech and dissent. In July 2012, defamation was re-criminalised after a brief lull under former President Medvedev. Given that fines of up to $153,000 can be dished out for violations, small media outlets now feel pressured to self-censor for fear of financial ruin. In June 2013 a law against blasphemy was introduced, penalising “religious insult” to the tune of up to 3 years in prison and $90,000 in fines. This was widely seen as a crude attempt to outlaw such stunts as Pussy Riot’s performance inside the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in February 2012. Finally, and most notoriously, June 2013 also saw the introduction of the gay ‘propaganda’ law. This prohibits “the propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships among minors”, meaning that any activity that could be construed as promoting a non-heterosexual lifestyle, including LGBT rallies, is now illegal. In the last seven months, LGBT groups in Russia have reported increased attacks on gay people, and Russia’s media watchdog has targeted at least one newspaper, Molodoi Dalnevostochnik, for its coverage of the firing of a gay school teacher.
Needless to say, these three laws do not live up to the international standards enshrined in such documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet more pertinently to the current situation, the gay “propaganda” law in particular falls far short of the ideals codified in the International Olympic Committee’s Code of Ethics. Admittedly this code is phrased in terms of people directly involved in the Games, but its underlying values are unequivocal. Section A, entitled “Dignity”, has as its second sentence: “There shall be no discrimination,” between the participants, “on the basis of race, gender, ethnic origin, religion, philosophical or political opinion, marital status or other grounds.”
Last June, a spokesman was forced to defend the IOC’s, “long term commitment to non-discrimination.” However, recent speculation that some athletes will wear rainbow pins and use their platform to protest has placed the IOC in a bind. Section 50.3 of the IOC Charter prescribes that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”
Will the IOC itself be obliged to censor or even disqualify those same extraordinary athletes who will make the Games such a thrilling event? It would seem ridiculous, but who knows? You have to feel somewhat sorry for the IOC. It does not seek to be a political organisation, and its only mistake was an excusable lack of foresight in giving Russia the games in the first place. It is Russia’s draconian recent legislation that is to blame. For the sake of the Russian people I can only hope that those laws will soon belong to the past, even if that change comes too late to preserve the full credibility of the Olympic movement.