Hey Fellow Sports Fans: As Sochi Approaches, Russia Snuffing the Torch

Russia's crackdown on freedom of expression should offend sports fans -- and human rights activists -- everywhere. Freedom is central to enjoying sports and politics.
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The Olympic torch arrived in Russia yesterday, part of the 'run up' to the Sochi Winter Olympics. The torch and the Olympic Charter symbolize peaceful competition, fair play, camaraderie and a chance to express one's individual spirit.

Tellingly, an errant gust of wind briefly extinguished the flame Sunday when it reached the hands of President Vladimir Putin. An aide re-lit the torch, but it may not burn so brightly in Putin's Russia, where speaking your mind or celebrating your sexual orientation or gender identity can land you in jail.

Russia's crackdown on freedom of expression should offend sports fans - and human rights activists - everywhere. Freedom is central to enjoying sports and politics. Imagine the NFL without freedom of expression: Ravens fans forced to wear Steelers' gold rather than their own purple and black; or Browns fans in the Dawg Pound told not to second guess a quarterback's pass in the crowded zone or question a referee's late call of offensive interference on a TD reception. Imagine a Baltimorean being told she cannot express disdain for the Indianapolis Colts, otherwise known in Charm City as the 'team that shall not be named.' And for all you Ivy League fans (I feel your pain), imagine having your half-time shows regulated. What if the Yale Precision Marching Band was forced actually to march with precision rather than pursue its own unbridled, free-form zaniness?

In Russia today, it is nearly impossible to find the political equivalents of the heated Sports Center discussions about Johnny Manziel's maturity level, Colin Kaepernick's guns, and Peyton Manning's idol status. Russia is a land where the term "out of bounds" applies not just to missing a gate on the giant slalom course, but also to daring to criticize the nation's president.

For fans who don't mind self-censorship and repression, you'll fit right in with Russia's new political etiquette. For the rest of us, time to summon up some righteous indignation.

Since President Putin returned to the presidency in May 2012, Russian authorities have intensified their assault on freedom of expression and undermined rule of law. President Putin and his cronies are restricting the work of non-governmental organizations, criminalizing speech that may "offend" the state or hurt religious feelings of believers, restricting peaceful political protests, and outlawing activism by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. Punk musicians cannot sing about President Putin's repression. LGBTI individuals - athletes and non-athletes alike - cannot organize a Pride parade or wear a rainbow ribbon without risking arrest for sporting "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations."

The repression is especially severe in the North Caucasus, next door to Sochi. There, Russian security forces enjoy near-total impunity for any human rights abuses they commit, all in the name of efforts to promote "stability" in a region long plagued by insecurity and volatility. Lawyers cannot defend their clients or speak out against prosecutorial and police misconduct without risking becoming targets of intimidation.

All of this seems somehow to have escaped the attention of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which recently decided Russia was complying with the spirit of the Olympic Charter. (Hey Ump! Are you BLIND? Can we get a review from the official in the booth?)

The Olympic Charter states that the practice of sport is a basic human right: "Every individual must have the possibility of practicing sport, without discrimination of any kind."

How exactly has the IOC been satisfied that LGBTI athletes will face no discrimination or other harm while attending the Games? The IOC should have done more than extract unreliable promises that Russia won't enforce its discriminatory laws against Olympians. It should have had some courage and called on Russia to repeal the laws, while also sending a signal to those hoping to host future Games that any country that officially sanctions such blatant discrimination need not apply. After all, the Charter proclaims, "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

If the IOC won't defend the Charter, then I guess it's up to us.

So sports fans - and human rights activists - it is time to break out our rainbow face paint and wigs. Let's ensure that the torch of freedom burns brightly in Russia now, during the games, and long after the Olympic flame is extinguished. Putin can't douse the flame of human rights that the Russia people have sparked if we all lend a hand (Or a Bronx cheer.)

The world is watching: time to get our game face on.

Frank lives in Baltimore, is a rabid Ravens fan and is past president of the Yale Precision Marching Band.

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