Between the Stoli boycott and statements from athletes around the world with regard to next year's Winter Olympics and Russia's new, draconian anti-gay laws, most of you know what's been going on. For those who don't, the short version is this: Earlier this year, Russia passed some horrifically anti-gay laws that make it illegal to "promote" homosexuality. Apparently you can be gay, but you just can't ever tell anyone about it for fear that you'll be reported and go to prison. These laws have given cover to neo-Nazi groups and others who take the law into their own hands by beating and murdering any person they think doesn't measure up to their standard of heterosexuality.
Many have called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to make strong statements against these laws, and some have even called for them to move the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, Russia, to a place that is more accepting of all athletes. The IOC responded by declaring that they'd spoken to Russian authorities and had been assured that Olympic athletes and fans would be exempt from the anti-gay laws while in Sochi. Not so fast, responded Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, who made it clear that Olympic athletes and fans would have to respect the host country's bigoted laws. And today, Russia's Interior Ministry stated unequivocally that the anti-gay laws will be enforced during the Olympic Games in Sochi.
This game of media ping-pong has left Olympic participants without any actual information regarding the situation in Russia. The truth of the matter is that no matter what kinds of assurances the IOC makes, LGBT people are not welcome or safe in Russia. The IOC can say whatever they want to, but it will not stop some Russian thug in a bar from kidnapping, beating and potentially murdering someone he perceives as gay.
Gay Star News asked the IOC what they thought about plans for athletes to wear rainbow pins or hold hands during the opening and closing ceremonies. They also asked if the IOC would provide a safe space -- or Pride House -- for LGBT athletes, spectators, dignitaries and others during the Games, to celebrate gay sport and community, as has been done in previous years. The IOC's spokesperson replied, "[T]he IOC has a clear rule laid out in the Olympic Charter (Rule 50) which states that the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration. This rule has been in place for many years and applied when necessary." Indeed, Rule 50 of the IOC's charter states, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
So instead of actually standing up for LGBT athletes, the IOC is essentially siding with Russia and issuing a warning to lesbian and gay athletes. The IOC has made it clear that they have a double standard when it comes to accepting all athletes. The Pride House in Vancouver was historic in that it provided a safe space for LGBT athletes from around the world. The IOC clearly didn't see this as a violation of Rule 50 a few years ago, but it seems as though athletes must now be forced to step back into the closet for the 2014 Winter Olympics.
If the Olympics remain in Sochi, LGBT athletes are automatically at a disadvantage. It's really hard to perform to one's full capabilities when one is spending part or most of the day in actual fear for his or her life. Gay New Zealand speedskater Blake Skjellerup told USA Today, "I don't want to have to tone myself down about who I am. That wasn't very fun and there's no way I'm going back in the closet. I just want to be myself and I hate to think that being myself would get me in trouble." I don't think you'll find a single athlete out there who'd disagree with the notion that you perform better when you don't have to hide who you are. In fact, many said as much when basketball player Jason Collins came out last year.
At this point, I can't imagine that there is anything that the IOC can say to actually ensure the safety of Olympic participants or fans, whether it be from the Russian government itself or from vigilantes who are rarely if ever prosecuted for their crimes against LGBT people. While boycotts and news stories have been effective at getting the word out about the atrocities being carried out against LGBT people in Russia, none of this will actually make anyone safer in Russia. And none of it will stop LGBT athletes from constantly having to look over their shoulders as they compete for Olympic gold.