This June, the Russian government decided to ban the spread of "nontraditional sexual relations" to minors. No one, not even the Kremlin, seems to have any idea about how strictly Russia will enforce its new law or how it will affect the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games in February.
Western nations and citizens have openly criticized Russia's new law. Many feel the ban institutionalizes homophobia and discrimination, and is the source of the increase in violence against homosexuals. BBC Moscow has reported Brutal videos fuel Russian anti-gay campaign.
However, leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron have refrained from supporting a boycott of the Olympic games, despite cries from people like Stephen Fry. Obama admitted that a conscientious withdrawal would be a mistake.
For example, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Moscow Olympics in response to the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan, but it had no effect except to cause Soviet Leonid Brezhnev's decision to boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Athletes still competed despite the absence of their host countries, causing the boycotts to have a more symbolic, than substantive, effect. If Obama's accusation that Putin is returning to Soviet era politics is right, then a U.S. boycott of the 2014 Olympics will simply result in Russia's boycotting the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.
Russia's Foreign Ministry's rights envoy Konstantin Dolgov described the calls to boycott the Sochi Games as "counterproductive".
Recently, Yahoo News conducted a straw poll amongst the local homosexual communities in Sochi and Moscow and found there to be no support for any kind of boycott. In fact, such a move would likely just provoke retribution against Russia's homosexual population.
At a White House news conference, Obama stated, "One of the things I am looking forward to is maybe some gay or lesbian athletes bring home the gold, silver or bronze. If Russian doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, it will probably make their team weaker." Comments like this can only worsen Obama's already frosty relationship with Putin.
Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko claims the controversy over Russia's new law is an "invented problem" focused on by the Western media, implying that Russian media has focused very little on it.
After some preliminary research into Mutko's claim, Mutko appears to be right. Russian news websites RIA Novosti and Lenta possess few articles about the controversy surrounding the new legislation, and most articles tend to cover the negative reactions of Americans and Europeans.
Mutko said "we want to protect our younger generation whose physicality has not been formulated. It is a law striving to protect rights of children -- and not intended to deprive anybody of their private life." He claimed "Russian athletes, foreign athletes, guests, those who come to Sochi will be granted all rights and freedom. This law does not deprive any citizen of rights, whether athletes or guests." However, the Russian Interior Ministry stated that the law would be enforced during the Olympics.
Dolgov stressed that all athletes and guests of the Olympic games would be treated "with maximum hospitality," but that Moscow was expecting them to respect Russian legislation, including the law banning the promotion of homosexuality.
Athletes are worrying about the law's vagueness leaving room for haphazard application and what constitutes promoting nontraditional sexual relations especially since millions of minors will be watching the Olympics in person and on television. Competitors remain confused because of the conflicting messages from Moscow. Since the law is so new, there is very little precedent regarding how Russia intends to enforce it.
Thus far, the only instance of the law's enforcement which has received major coverage occurred in July, when four Dutch citizens were shooting a documentary about LGBT communities in Russia. They were detained for talking to teenagers near a camp in Murmansk, fined, and deported.
The Moscow World Athletics Championships (WAC) may provide some insight to how Russia will likely respond to protests during the Olympics. Numerous minor controversies occurred during the WAC, and Russia's response in handling the situations likely foreshadows what to expect in the upcoming year.
Yelena Isinbayeva, one of Russia's most famous athletes, appeared to criticize acts of solidarity and called for respect of Russian laws. After her criticism sparked controversy, she backtracked the following day by citing her bad English skills. This is a valid excuse since English isn't her first language.
Four Russian sprinters also ignited a mild controversy, and even greater confusion, when they kissed one another after winning the Women's 4x400-meter relay. Organizations like Sky News, Fox Sports News (through their affiliate YardBarker.com), Huffington Post, Slate and others associated the word "protest" to this incident. The problem with using this event as an example of protest is that men and women are allowed to kiss members of the same sex when celebrating. Women also kiss one another when they meet or say good-bye. The team affirmed this in a recent public statement.
Instead, two much smaller events provide more accurate indications of how Russia will enforce its new law.
Swedish high jumper Emma Green-Tregaro painted her nails in the colors of the rainbow, as did sprinter Moa Hjelmer. Green-Tregaro was warned that the gesture broke the sport's code of conduct and she repainted her nails red for her appearance in the high jump finals.
American silver medalist in the 800-meter dash Nick Symmonds dedicated his victory to his "gay friends." Symmonds is the first athlete to openly criticize Russia's law on Russian soil. So far, he has not been punished. If Symmonds remains unpunished, then it is likely that words will be permitted but any actions or symbols like rainbow pins, flags, etc. will be prohibited.
Russia can enforce this distinction with the support of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states, "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."
The International Olympic Committee has demonstrated they will enforce the rules if necessary. They did so during the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when two U.S. athletes were stripped of their medals after giving a "black power" salute.
Congressman Mark Takano (D - CA) sums up the likely official Russian position:
"To be an openly straight person is not a political statement and is not a religious expression. It's simply a person being who they are, fundamentally, as a human being. And I would say that's true of people who are openly gay, openly lesbian, openly bisexual, [and] openly transgender. To somehow impute that as political expression, whereas being openly straight is somehow not - this is an absurdity."
New Zealand's Blake Skjellerup stated that he would wear a rainbow pin in Sochi. Skjellerup is currently the only openly gay athlete confirmed for participation at Sochi. Based on the outcome of the small WAC controversies, he will be allowed to participate, but he will need to remove the pin. If he refuses, then he could be disqualified under Rule 50.
Moscow probably wishes that more athletes were like U.S. Figure skater Johnny Weir, a two-time Olympian and Sochi hopeful who is known for his feather- and glitter-adorned costumes. Weir believes that his status as a Russian speaking, openly gay man with a large Russian following who is married to a Russian-American speaks louder than a simple pin or flag.
Since Moscow can cite Rule 50, Moscow's biggest danger isn't from athletes but from potential protests led by people such as prominent gay-rights activist Nikolai Alekseyev, who told Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty that he was prepared to distribute pins from the first Moscow pride parade in 2006 to any interested athletes.
Additionally, Konstantin Yablotskiy, the Russian LGBT Sports Federation President, stated, "For a few weeks, we have the opportunity to bring the attention of the world to the situation in Russia."
Even if Alekseyev or Yablotskiy organize a protest, they will likely have little support. Putin and the Russian Government don't expect any protests after Putin signed an executive order forbidding public demonstrations during the Olympics.
RIA Novosti reported that recent polls from the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) show that 88 percent of Russians support the new law, while 54 percent believe that homosexuality should be altogether criminalized.
When the Duma passed the law 436 to 0 (one vote abstained) on June 11, 2013, only 300 activists protested the new law.
It's a clear sign Putin is doing everything within his power to prevent a massive social controversy from occurring. In the end, it will be a surprise if all the political maneuvering and rhetoric has any effect on the Olympics.
Joshua Schiefelbein is a senior at Dartmouth College majoring in Russian Area Studies. He recently finished a study abroad program in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a sports enthusiast, especially of the Cincinnati Bengals, and plans to return to St. Petersburg in order to become fluent in Russian.
Lisa Chau is a private consultant focused on social media and cross-platform marketing. Previously, she spent five years working for her alma mater Dartmouth College, as assistant director of alumni affairs and assistant director of PR for the Tuck School of Business. She has also taught at MIT, and guest lectured MBA and undergraduate courses in e-business Strategy at Baruch College and NYU's New School.