How Olympic Sponsors and the IOC Could Have Stopped Russia's Anti-Gay Law -- And Didn't

The ugly truth about Russia's law against gay "propaganda," now the subject of worldwide protests and boycotts, is coming into view. And that includes the role of American companies sponsoring the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, as well that of the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. Olympic Committee, in allowing the heinous law to get passed.

The law, passed in early June of this year and signed by Vladimir Putin on June 30, didn't just come out of nowhere. It worked its way up the legislative chain over a long period of time, beginning in the provinces, where similar local laws were passed as far back as 2006, and following on several years of crackdowns against LGBT activists and against pride parades in Moscow, St. Petersburg and elsewhere.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) notes that before Sochi was chosen for the 2014 games, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and other stakeholders, including American multinational sponsors of the Winter Olympics, as well as NBC Universal, which has the broadcast contract, carefully tracked the path of the legislation, which is a clear violation of the Olympic Charter.

"This piece of legislation worked its way up through the legislative system," Minky Worden, HRW's Director of Global Initiatives, told me in an interview (listen to the full interview below). "The International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee, the so-called top corporate sponsors -- Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Procter & Gamble -- these companies all, as [HRW] did, tracked the progress of this law."

"And because it is so clearly in complete violation of the Olympic Charter," she continued, "it's also clear to us at Human Rights Watch that if any of the major Olympic stakeholders who have a hotline to the Kremlin -- because the Olympics are very important to Putin personally, he has a deputy prime minister, [Dmitry] Kozak, who is tasked with making them come off perfectly -- that if any of the Olympic stakeholders, the sponsors who are literally paying for the Games, or the International Olympic Committee, the U.S. Olympic Committee or the other Olympic committees, if they weighed in on this, I don't think this law would have been signed by Putin or passed by the Duma. If they had leaned on [Russia] before the law was signed, it would not have been signed. That is absolutely true."

Worden is so confident that the IOC and American sponsors could have stopped the law because of the impact that the IOC and multinationals have had on governments in past Olympic Games. (OutSports' Cyd Zielger notes this as well, with some clear examples, in his recent post about how the IOC should now ban Russia from its own Winter Olympics.)

Worden pointed to South Korea in 1988.

"When South Korea was awarded the Games it was a military dictatorship," she explained. "We know now that the transition to democracy was actually jump-started by the International Olympic Committee and the U.S. weighing in very heavily behind the scenes and pressuring the military government to hold elections before the Olympics. That's a concrete example of the Games actually changing a human right-abusing situation into a largely robust and democratic government."

But the IOC and other stakeholders did not put the same pressure on China for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, acquiescing completely, as they've done with Russia. The net result was more repression, with forced evictions, thousands of people cleared from the streets and all dissent silenced.

"By bolstering the security apparatus, the Beijing Olympics actually sent China into a political deep freeze that is only now lifting," Worden notes. "Russia is giving Beijing a run for its money as a human rights-abusing Olympics."

It's horrendous that the IOC, the USOC and the corporate sponsors allowed the law to get passed without applying pressure and sending the message that the Olympics won't happen in Russia unless the law was scuttled. Now, facing international outcry and boycotts, it's not enough to get assurances that athletes won't get arrested. We must demand that they put pressure on Putin's government to get the law repealed.