September 1, 2013

IconSochi 2014: the Games that is about so much more than medals

“The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

You have just read the 2nd of 7 Fundamental Principles of Olympism; the moral code, if you will, which guides the Olympic movement itself and everyone involved in organizing, or competing in, a Summer or Winter Olympic Games.

I’d like to draw your attention to the last 5 words: “the preservation of human dignity”.  No matter who you are, where you come from, or what moral views you hold, I think we can all agree that the current situation for LGBT people in Russia, the host nation of the 2014 Winter Olympics, is in direct violation of this aim.

The law, introduced by Vladimir Putin’s government, which bans the spread of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”, has been re-worded since its first incarnation.  Originally it specifically cited “homosexual propaganda”, but was then re-written to ‘soften the edges’.  Personally, I’m not sure why they bothered.  The hatred and discrimination aimed directly at LGBT people in Russia is so clear and determined that the wording of the actual bill almost becomes irrelevant; the ultimate, despicable aim is still the same in the end.

 A controversial history

Russia has hosted a variety of international sporting events in the past, including the particularly infamous and equally controversial 1980 Olympics in Moscow.  At the height of the Cold War, this Games was boycotted by a variety of countries, most notably the USA, after the Soviet Union’s support of the Communist regime in Afghanistan was deemed to be a violation of human rights by the then President, Jimmy Carter.

As political protests go, the overall effectiveness of this method was debatable, but what it does show is that sport, and the Olympics in particular, will always be inextricably linked with international politics.  And, in truth, how can it not be?  Ultimately, all human existence is inextricably linked with politics; my human right to speak freely and publish this article for the world to see is a good example.  As I write I’m drinking a cup of tea; the fact that my girlfriend and I were able to pop to the supermarket to buy said beverage without being beaten half to death for being lesbians, or being refused service, is inextricably linked to politics.  So, of course, an Olympic Games, one of the biggest international stages there can be, with the entire planet watching, automatically becomes a showcase for all that is good (or bad) about all countries and athletes competing, and about the host nation in particular.

Standing up

Racism, for example, has been both addressed and actively battled using the Olympics as a vehicle.  Possibly the most famous example of this was Jesse Owens, who bagged 4 gold medals at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, expertly bursting Hitler’s ‘supreme Aryan race’ bubble in the process.  He didn’t even need to say anything; his brilliance as an athlete and a magnanimous human being were enough.  32 years later, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the gold and bronze medalists respectively in the 200m, used their medal award ceremony to raise their black gloved fists into the air in support of all the black people, particularly in America, who were living in abject poverty and / or in fear of their lives.  In the immediate aftermath of this act, both men were ostracised by practically everybody, however as time has gone on both have been recognised as heroes.

Despite this legacy of political protest, the IOC insists that the Olympic Games is, and has always been intended to be, an apolitical forum.  To this end, point 10 of the IOC mission statement declares that one of its aims is “to oppose any political or commercial abuse of sport and athletes”.  Any political stands made in the past by any country or individual athlete, no matter how effective they have retrospectively been considered to be, have always been looked down upon and, in many cases, punished by the IOC.

The here and now

So, with this as the ‘potted’ backdrop, we fast forward to February 2014, and the Sochi Winter Olympics.  So much has already been discussed and debated in this arena; celebrity involvement has been much noted, including the writing of open letters on the topic by both Stephen Fry and one of my own personal heroes, British-born NBA basketball player John Amaechi.  The latter called for the IOC, as well as all athletes and competitors, to recognise the part they play as moral and ethical role models and to use the platform created for them by the Games to show their presumed opposition to the human rights violations perpetrated by the Russian government.  Fry’s letter likened Putin’s treatment of LGBT people to Hitler’s treatment of Jews.  He has also since voiced his support of the idea of athletes using the Games to protest, although originally he, like many others, was very much in favour of the Games being moved from Russia to a less controversial setting.  However, like the similar request made by Jimmy Carter in 1980, it is highly unlikely to ever happen simply due to the logistics of moving an Olympics so close to the event.

I have to say that, of all the suggestions made as to how the situation in Russia should be dealt with, I like the idea of the Games being used as a platform for protest.  When the 1980 Moscow Games were boycotted by America and the 1976 Games were boycotted by African athletes (due to their disgust at the apartheid regime in South Africa), all that really happened was that talented athletes lost the opportunity to perform on the greatest stage in the world.  And, in the case of the Moscow Games, it effectively made it even easier for the Eastern Bloc to purvey their ridiculous propaganda by topping the medals table and apparently ‘proving’ their physical dominance over every other nation.  Obviously, it later became apparent that all they were really proving was what happens when the state becomes complicit in the biggest display of cheating ever known in modern athletics.

Athlete protests

In many ways, the protesting has already begun.  This summer, Russia hosted the World Athletics Championships, giving rise to the first wave of sporting demonstration over the host nation’s LGBT policies.  Previously to this, most protesting had come from other arenas, such as the boycott on Russian vodka exercised by a variety of gay bars and clubs.  However, actions such as those taken by Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro, who painted her nails in rainbow colours in support of Russia’s LGBT community, and US 800m runner Nick Symmonds, who dedicated his silver medal at the Championships to his gay and lesbian friends at home, showed the power and media coverage that such demonstrations can bring.

And, ultimately, as we all know, the media coverage and the social networking mentions that this topic receives are key to this message being spread as far and as wide as possible.  Russian officials have confirmed that their highly discriminatory LGBT laws will not be relaxed or discarded during the course of the Games or at any other time; what gives them the right to decide who can and can’t feel safe to be involved in an Olympic Games?  But then, what gives them the right to arrest, torture, ‘convert’ and harass their own citizens every single day?  No decent human being would tolerate prejudice and discrimination on this level towards anybody.

Making history?

Despite the IOC’s assurances that the laws will not impact the Winter Games, I’m really not convinced.  Firstly, they have also urged all attendees to ‘respect the laws of the host nation’; what on earth does that mean for an LGBT person?  But secondly, is that really the point?  “Please, Russia, carry on with these atrocities towards your own people…just don’t spoil our fun”.  Seriously?

And so I find myself in agreement with Mr Fry and Mr Amaechi.  I would love to see a wave of protest in support of LGBT people who are suffering at the hands of their government everywhere.  I would love to look back on this event in years to come and hear it mentioned in the same breath as the 1936 and1968 Games.  In his closing speech of the London 2012 Games, Lord Coe said that he hoped that the world would remember that “we did it right”.  With every ounce of my being, I have the same hope for Sochi 2014.

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