Is an Olympic Showdown Inevitable?

We’ve had mixed signals from the Russian government about how their new anti-gay “propaganda” law will operate when they host the Olympics last year. The latest is the government’s sports minister saying that they will enforce the law on athletes, despite earlier assurances to the IOC that they won’t:

Russia will enforce a new law cracking down on gay rights activism when it hosts international athletes and fans during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, the country’s sports minister said Thursday, appearing to contradict assurances to the contrary from the International Olympic Committee…

“An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi,” Vitaly Mutko said in an interview with R-Sport, the sports newswire of state news agency RIA Novosti. “But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”

Mutko emphasized that the law wasn’t designed to punish anyone for being gay or lesbian. But like the Russian lawmakers who authored the bill, Mutko said athletes would be punished only for propaganda, a word that remains ambiguous under the new law.

“The corresponding law doesn’t forbid non-traditional orientation, but other things: propaganda, involvement of minors and young people.”

The law specifies punishment for foreign citizens, to include fines of up to 100,000 rubles ($3,000 US), time in prison for up to 15 days, deportation and denial of reentry into Russia. Four Dutch citizens working on a documentary film about gay rights in the northern Russian town of Murmansk were the first foreigners to be detained under the new law, although their case did not make it to court, according to RIA Novosti.

If this is true, I think an ugly incident is almost inevitable. Someone at the Olympics, likely an athlete or coach, is almost certainly going to use the opportunity to take a stand for human rights and equality. It may be something as subtle as taking out a small rainbow flag on the medal stand or it may be speaking out to the media. But someone is going to do it, as they should. And then Russia has a choice to make. Do they spark an ugly international incident and make an arrest? They must know that doing so will only make them look terrible. But they may decide that their internal politics matters more.

And for those signing petitions to pull the Olympics from Russia over this, stop kidding yourselves. There is no way in hell that’s going to happen. The Olympics were held in Nazi Germany, for crying out loud. And it’s only six months away. It simply is not going to happen. But I think a showdown over this during that event may very well happen.

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  • matty1

    I think the IOC should just rename this event from Winter Olympics to The Harvey Milk Memorial Games, that would be good propaganda.

  • http://www.thelosersleague.com theschwa

    “And for those signing petitions to pull the Olympics from Russia over this, stop kidding yourselves. There is no way in hell that’s going to happen. “

    But I signed that petition in ALL CAPS!! Surely if more people did that, they would move the games!!

  • Abby Normal

    There was an editorial in The Huffington Post yesterday calling on the Olympic Committee to ban Russia from participating in the games they’re hosting. No way in hell it will happen. But I got a kick out of the idea.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/amilliongods/ Avicenna

    I wrote a piece calling for the boycott of the games as has many other brits.

    I would propose calling it the Alan Turing Memorial games. Because “BRITISHNESS”….

  • Scr… Archivist

    Is there such a thing as an LGBT salute or hand symbol? I’m thinking of Smith and Carlos, ’68.

  • jamessweet

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with signing the petition, although indeed nobody should be under the illusion that such a thing is at all likely. It sends the right message, at least.

  • busterggi

    So rape and murder are okay because of diplomatic immunity but promoting equal rights is illegal?

    How again is today’s Russia really any different than it was forty years ago?

  • lldayo

    6 months until the 2014 Olympics? I guess I REALLY drank a lot this past weekend!

    I’d be all for a boycott though as the loss in revenue after all of their preparations would, hopefully, send a strong signal to the people of Russia to push for a change.

  • marcus

    Scr… Archivist @ 5 May I nominate: Raising a clenched fist a la Smith and Carlos, and then slowly extending the middle finger. Because nothing says, “Fuck you very much if you can’t take a joke, whoever you may be! ” like the good ol’ one finger salute.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.

    That’s kind of what I expect: they won’t mess with Olympians as long as they stay in their designated “green zone,” but if they do anything that looks like making contact with ordinary Russians, they’ll get busted.

    This “new” law isn’t about homosexuality, as much as it’s about xenophobia, scapegoating, and finding new ways to keep Russian hearts pure of foreign ideas and cut Russians off from any contact with the outside world. In that regard, the Christianists in that part of the world are pretty much the same as the Islamists to their south.

  • laurentweppe

    I wrote a piece calling for the boycott of the games as has many other brits.

    Others habe called for a worldwide boycott of Vodka.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    I vote for the Alan Turing over Harvey Milk because I think Turing achieved more and suffered worse.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    As for gestures of protest by our athletes, here’s some ideas:

    Wear T-shirts with Harvey Milk’s face, in the style of those black-on-red Che Guevara T-shirts.

    Whenever an American gets a medal, he/she gets up on the podium with a rainbow flag.

    Enter with rainbow flags at the opening ceremonies.

  • marcus

    Raging Bee @10 I agree, I doubt if anything said from the podium would be prosecuted, especially since it could be edited out of the broadcasts to protect delicate bigot sensibilities.

  • marcus

    RB PS Like your “gestures of protest” suggestions.

  • http://www.facebook.com/BillWareTN billware

    I got to thinking about the rainbow arch made up of helium balloons. No single balloon means much. Only when they are put together do they have a real meaning. In the opening parade, if the athletes were lined up six across and each had a catch of balloons of a single color, but together they made a rainbow, what are the police to do? Arrest someone for holding eight green helium balloons?

  • Synfandel

    …when they host the Olympics last year…

    Last year it was in London. Sochi gets the Olympics games next year.

  • dcsohl

    Olympics take waaay too much planning to move them somewhere else. Pulling the Olympics from Russia would mean cancelling them. Even recent hosts of the Olympics like Vancouver, Torino or Salt Lake City would have a buttload of work to do to spruce up the venues in time.

    I like the idea of banning Russia from their own Olympics but don’t see it actually happening.

    I think it’s gonna end up with a boycott. A weak half-assed boycott because, unlike apartheid, too many nations don’t see this as a big deal. It’d be US, Canada, Australia, NZ and Western Europe boycotting, and everybody else participating.

  • kevindorner

    “And for those signing petitions to pull the Olympics from Russia over this, stop kidding yourselves. There is no way in hell that’s going to happen. The Olympics were held in Nazi Germany, for crying out loud.”

    Perhaps the IOC’s shame at holding the Olympics in Nazi Germany could persuade them to not have a repeat and move them instead.

    In any case, as little as signing a petition may do, little > nothing every time. Here’s the petition for anyone interested.

  • Trebuchet

    @8:

    6 months until the 2014 Olympics? I guess I REALLY drank a lot this past weekend!

    The Sochi (Winter) Olympics open 7 February 2014. Six months from yesterday.

    The IOC isn’t going to do anything about this. Other than allowing athletes to make money, the spirit of Avery Brundage is alive and well.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    I don’t think a boycott is a good idea. In fact, I think a boycott would play right into the Sov — I mean the Russians’ hands, by denying ourselves a window into their situation, and by helping them to further their own isolation from the rest of the world. I really think the best response here is to take the Olympics as an opportunity to make a few in-your-face protests against their backwardness and bigotry.

  • matty1

    Milk was just the first name that popped into my head, yes Turing is even better. Does anyone know if his code breaking benefited the soviet war against Hitler specifically? That would be the pink icing on the cake.

  • scienceavenger

    An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi…But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable. The corresponding law doesn’t forbid non-traditional orientation, but other things: propaganda, involvement of minors and young people.

    I find this confusing. It would be one thing if they denied the existence of gay orientation, and went the rightwing you-are-what-you-do route. But in light of the admission that gay people exist, WTF does it mean to propogandize about it with young people? How can “Hey, I’m gay” be propoganda when the friggin’ official himself admits it might be so? Is this Putin’s version of “don’t ask don’t tell”?

    Personally I think Olympic boycotts are, and have always been, horrible ideas. The people that suffer the most deserve it the least: the athletes. Think Kurt Thomas. Had we boycotted the 1936 Berlin Olympics, we’d have been deprived of the delicious spectacle of Jesse Owens making Hitler’s Arians eat his dust. The best thing that could happen would be something similar with as many gay athletes as can be fit onto the podium. Maybe one of them might even blow a kiss at Putin.

  • tubi

    dcsohl @18

    It’d be US, Canada, Australia, NZ and Western Europe boycotting, and everybody else participating.

    So then it would be Russia winning about 98% of all medals. In Vancouver, depending on how Croatia and Slovakia define themselves, all medals but 12 (or 16 if CRO and SVK are not Western Europe) were won by USA, CAN, AUS, NZL, or Western Europe. And of the 12, 9 went to RUS, with Belarus, China, and Japan getting one each.

    I still don’t think there will be a boycott, but if those countries do stay home, it sure leaves the door open for Burundi to take the Men’s Super G.

    I think the likely outcome is that athletes will make some individual gestures, although I suspect that each country’s OC is urging them to be “good.”

    The more direct approach would be to contact directly NBC or BBC and their corporate partners. Coca-Cola, Dow, GE, Panasonic, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, VISA. GE, for example, offers nearly all benefits to same-sex spouses and includes non-discrimination policies based on orientation and gender identity. P&G has a particularly high rating from the HRC. Ask them if Russia’s policies are compatible with their corporate vision. I have no problem using Pepsi, Colgate, AMEX, and Burger King for the next year.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    matty1: the USSR benefitted from Turing’s actions to the extent that their then-aly the UK benefitted. Not sure how much Russians today know about that. My reading on this subject was long ago, but other spies, like the Cambridge Five, may have forwarded information obtained by Turing’s code-cracking to the USSR.

    I suppose one could also mention Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt, both of whom spied for the USSR, and both of whom were gay — but neither of them were actually persecuted for it, at least not to the extent that Turing or Milk were.

  • colnago80

    Re scienceavenger @ #23

    Had we boycotted the 1936 Berlin Olympics, we’d have been deprived of the delicious spectacle of Jesse Owens making Hitler’s Arians eat his dust.

    Aryan, not Arian.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    Does anyone know if his code breaking benefited the soviet war against Hitler specifically?

    Yes, it did.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_kursk#Military_historian_opinions

    Sir Harry Hinsley, a World War II historian who worked at Bletchley Park during the war, has said:

    Information decrypted by Ultra was given to the Soviets, which helped them prepare for the offensive. The Soviets had a spy at Bletchley Park (John Cairncross), who was giving them decrypts of German military communications. Hinsley said that some speculate that without Ultra, Germany would have won at Kursk, and “Hitler could have carved up Russia”. Ultra decrypts were also given to the Soviets concerning German plans for Stalingrad.

    I think it’s a gross exaggeration to say that the Germans “could have carved up Russia” without the decrypts, but clearly the Soviets benefited from them.

  • http://motherwell.livejournal.com/ Raging Bee

    WTF does it mean to propogandize about it with young people?

    It means showing your face to them and showing them that you’re not a demon or a deranged monster trying to get in their pants. That alone would set their xenophobic propaganda back a good bit, and it’d be the only excuse they’d need to arrest you.

    I hesitate to advocate this, since it’s not my skin in this game, but if several high-profile Olympians were to go out, talk to Russians and get themselves arrested, that would be a HUGE blow to Russian PR, and a major embarrassment to the Russians — especially if someone else were able to record the event and show the world that the arrestees were doing absolutely nothing wrong or harmful.

  • sharonb

    I think there should be Change.org petitions against the Corporate SPONSORS.

    $$ is the only way to get the attention of the IOC.

  • cptdoom

    According to the NYTimes, any political protest by an athlete can get them banned from the games – so the IOC may be doing the Russians’ dirty work for them.

    Given the publicity this heinous law is (finally) getting, I can’t see the controversy over by the time the Hatelympics open in Sochi, so some form of protest – either in Sochi, elsewhere around the world, or both – is more than likely. That’s because it’s not just about athletes and spectators being harmed by the law. Russia has seen a wave of violence – often directed against LGBT citizens protesting for their rights – that the police do nothing to stop. There are also reports of Russian skinheads luring gay teens through social media, then beating and humiliating them on camera and posting the videos so their families know they’re gay. There were unconfirmed reports this week that one teen is now dead as a result – whether from injuries during the beating or suicide is not clear. Can the Russian government really protect pro-gay foreigners from assault by Russian thugs?

  • exdrone

    I think an ugly incident is almost inevitable. Someone at the Olympics, likely an athlete or coach, is almost certainly going to use the opportunity to take a stand for human rights and equality.

    This is the Olympics that features men’s figure skating after all. … Sorry, couldn’t help it.

  • naturalcynic

    @24 tubi: South Korea won 14 medals [6 gold] in speed skating. Would the Koreans show up? Yes.

  • jefferylanam

    The outstretched middle finger doesn’t translate in Russian. The equivalent is the dulya or fig sign. It’s a fist with the thumb between the first and second fingers. The American OK gesture is obscene in Russia as well.

  • lynxreign

    Sure, it isn’t like the Olympics have been boycotted since Nazi Germany, like 44 years later or something. That’d be as ridiculous as the US boycotting them in Russia with Russia boycotting the next ones in the US as retaliation. What a ridiculous idea! And only 6 months! That’d be like if Carter threatened to boycott the 1980 Olympics in January of that SAME YEAR! Never could have happened.

    Next thing you’ll be telling me men have walked on the moon. If there did, WHERE’S ALL THE GREEN CHEESE? HUH?

  • boadinum

    I signed the petition with the knowledge that it wouldn’t do anything to have the Games boycotted and/or moved. However, I think that the petition, along with President Obama’s cancelling his meeting with Tsar Putin over the Snowden gay rights issue will at least help to put Russia on the hot seat viz the international community.

    And I really, really hope that the athletes will use their visibility to protest loud and proud. Men’s hockey players wearing gay pride helmets? Bring it on!