Over the last two weeks there has been a lot of debate about taking Olympic action against Russia for the country's anti-gay laws. Some say athletes should march into the Opening Ceremony holding rainbow flags, but that would likely result in disqualifications for said athletes, based on the Olympic Charter (rule 50, if you're looking). Others are putting together letters of petition asking the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to take a stand against the Russian laws, but a simple public statement by the IOC would get folded up and used as a coaster in the Kremlin. Many have called for a boycott of the Olympics by countries like the U.S., but boycotts don't directly hit the Russians. Asking the United States and other nations to boycott the Olympics simply punishes 19-year-old athletes, not Vladamir Putin. Buying Ketel One instead of Stolichnaya might take a swipe at a business owner in Moscow or a factory worker in St. Petersburg, but it's just a pesky mosquito to the Russian government. And caviar? Who eats it anyway?
To make a real statement, to send a message to the Russians that these laws cannot stand, the IOC has to go a step further. Instead of the rest of the world refusing to go to Sochi, there's one step that the IOC can take that will land a wake-up slap on the face of the Kremlin: Ban Russia from competing in their own Winter Olympic Games.
Why debate the exclusion of American, Canadian, British and other athletes when it's Russia that's in violation here? The new Russian law is in clear and direct conflict with the Olympic Charter, creating a system of discrimination that forces LGBT athletes into a life of fear and isolation. "The practice of sport is a human right," the charter reads. "Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play." That's not just an isolated sentence in the midst of dozens of charter pages; it's right up front, in the section called "Fundamental Principles of Olympism." That's "fundamental" as in "essential to the existence of the Olympics." And the Russian law doesn't just violate one word or one clause of the Olympic Charter; it violates the entire statement. The law doesn't just punish Russian athletes; it subjects competitors from every nation to discrimination and flies in the face of the Olympic spirit.
While an Olympic ban for Russia may sound like a mountain to climb, it's been done before, and for similar reasons. In 1964 the IOC banned South Africa from Olympic competition because of the nation's apartheid policies. Despite the South Africans claiming that they would add black athletes to their Olympic team that year, the IOC demanded that the South African government publicly renounce all racial discrimination in sport. The white-majority government of South Africa refused, and they were banned from Olympic participation until 1992. Similarly, Rhodesia was banned from the Olympics just four days before the 1972 Munich Games began, because of anti-black racist policies in the nation. That nation, which collapsed in 1979, never competed in an Olympic Games. Afghanistan was banned from the 2000 Summer Games because of human-rights violations against women under the Taliban; they were readmitted four years later upon the inclusion of female Olympians. Germany was banned from several Games for their involvement in World War I and World War II. And most recently, India was banned from the Olympics late last year after the IOC rejected the outcome of Indian Olympic Association elections. When India held new elections this spring with a different outcome, the IOC lifted the ban. If political elections are enough to get a nation banned from Olympic competition, a ban for the criminalization of an entire class of people should be a no-brainer.
There's growing support within the IOC for doing something. On Sept. 10 the organization will elect its new president. One of the six main candidates, Puerto Rico's Richard Carrión, has opened the door to action. "We should use all the avenues possible for influence and diplomacy with Russian officials, so that this legislation will not create a problem for our athletes," Carrión said last week. But even if they were able to convince Russia to carve out a "bubble" in the law to exempt all of Sochi for two weeks, Russian LGBT athletes would face arrest as soon as the Olympics ended. The IOC's action should seek to overturn the law, and banning Russia from the Olympics is the best way to accomplish that.
Unlike other suggestions, the repercussions of an Olympic ban would have a ripple effect throughout Russia. While the Russians would love an American boycott of the Games -- more medals for them -- being banned from competition at their own Games would help drive public sentiment. Instead of asking our athletes to carry messages that would fall on deaf Russian ears, it would drive Russian Olympic hopefuls to speak out to their own government.
Just the threat of these kinds of bans have had a direct influence in the past, most recently on the 2012 Games. After the ban of Afghanistan, calls swelled in 2008 for Olympic bans of Saudi Arabia and Qatar due to the nations' failure to include women on their Olympic teams. Four years later, Saudi Arabian and Qatar included a total of six women on their Olympic teams; these were the first women ever to represent these two nations at the Games.
Calling for a Russian Olympic ban also puts the onus for action squarely where it belongs: on the IOC. The IOC chose Russia to host the Games. Human-rights violations aren't new to the former Soviet state. This is their problem, they need to fix it, and they need to send a clear, strong message. That message would also put other nations on notice. While many countries with severe anti-gay policies -- like Nigeria and Cameroon -- won't compete in Sochi, they certainly have plans for the Summer Games in 2016. Banning the Russians now would effect change across continents.
You can dump gallons of Stoli into the gutter of Santa Monica Blvd. You can get every Western nation to boycott the Winter Games. You can have every American Olympian send a message to Putin that they disagree with the Russian anti-gay laws. The IOC can make a big statement against anti-gay laws on every TV station in the world. Every bit of that will fall on deaf ears in the Kremlin. Instead, ban Russia from their own Games. They'll get that message loud and clear.
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