When Howard Zinn coined the phrase "you can't stay neutral on a moving train" in his 1994 autobiography of the same name, he was expressing the maxim that true neutrality is difficult and, often, impossible, that the workings of injustice are a "moving train" on which we all travel, our inaction only supporting both the path and the destination of that injustice.
Thomas Bach, the newly elected president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), has found himself not only on that train (a train that the IOC intentionally boarded by selecting Sochi, Russia, to host the 2014 Winter Olympics amid growing anti-LGBT sentiment in Russia and exacerbated after Russia passed its anti-"gay propaganda" law in June 2013) but working as its very conductor.
It is no longer news that Russia has attracted considerable media attention, international pressure, shame and ire over its ambiguous and far-reaching ban on "gay propaganda," an attention drawn even more strongly due to its status as host country for the Winter Olympics. In its floundering attempts at asking the international community to be silent, Russia is asking for assent and silent support for its ongoing persecution and victimization of the LGBT community. Luckily, much of the international community has refused.
Yet under former president Jacques Rogge's leadership, the IOC had not made any statements against this bigoted and vicious legislation. Instead, after having its reputation skewered during a politically embarrassing kerfuffle in which Russia's Minister of Sports publicly contradicted the IOC's assertion that Olympians would be free from prosecution under the law, the IOC only sought further "clarification" of the law. Former president Rogge had even stated that he does not believe this to be a "fundamental" issue but merely a "translation issue." When further pressed about openness and safety of LGBT participants, the IOC has stated that the Olympic Games are not a place for "political statements" and thus left open the possibility that athletes and spectators who defy Russia's ban may actually be punished by the IOC itself.
It appears that Bach, who will now be managing the IOC's political response to the legislation, will continue to toe the line on this and other fundamental human rights issues. Thus far, the only additional assurances he has provided are that IOC policies will be "worked out and ... communicated" in the future.
My message to Bach is simple: Tepid avoidance of this type of persecution is completely unacceptable. Not only does this position essentially nullify Section Six of the IOC's own charter (stating that "[a]ny 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"), but it denies any contributory responsibility for these blatant human rights abuses.
The IOC would like us to believe that it is acting both sensibly and in a historically apolitical fashion by not taking a stance against this legislation. Of course, this is a statement that simultaneously idealizes and denies the very nature of the organization. Indeed, recent history is rife with examples where the IOC has acted not only politically but in direct support of political or religious statements by various athletes.
In the 1956, 1960 and 1964 Olympics, the IOC insisted that East and West Germany compete as one team or not at all. South Africa was banned from the Olympics for nearly 30 years due to its apartheid regime. At the 2012 Olympics the IOC was instrumental in changing its own rules, as well as those of the International Judo Foundation, regarding the hijab, going so far as to assist in the design of a religious garment sufficient under the rules and Islam so that the Saudi Arabian team could send a more gender-inclusive delegation. Athletes have worn crosses, bowed down in prayer, and even covered their face with a display of the Virgin Mary without any repercussions from the IOC.
At times where the IOC has acted politically to create understanding and inclusiveness, it has been lauded. When a unified Germany competed in the Olympics, the IOC had brokered a political peace that had not been obtained otherwise. When Sarah Attar, the Olympian from Saudi Arabia who had been allowed to wear the hijab, crossed the 800-meter finish line during the 2012 Olympics, she received a standing ovation, even though she crossed 30 seconds later than all her competitors.
Examples of instances when the IOC has failed to take a stance or caved to political pressures are numerous as well and have often ended in dire consequences. When the Mexican government massacred hundreds of protestors just 10 days before the Olympic games of 1968 (many say to protect its image), the IOC stood silent and even allowed Mexico's president to preside over the opening ceremony. In 2008 the IOC responded to China and its anti-religious-"propaganda" ban similarly to how it's responding to Russia today. Empowered, the Chinese government followed up with even greater persecution of religious groups. This led to a surge in harassment, detentions and even violence against religious minorities. Though this was only a small echo of the Mexican massacres of 1968, can we truly put our faith in the Russian government to act any differently from China?
The IOC has never truly had the option to be neutral. Indeed, it has a heightened duty, imposed by its charter, selection power and its history, to stand up for its human rights ideals and ensure, with clear and concise language, that discrimination and bullying not be accepted at this Olympic event or any other Olympic event in the future. Failure to respond to regressive and discriminatory legislation, such as that introduced in Russia, is a matter of not just political statement but open support for a country's prejudices and places the IOC -- and countries that assert a desire and a right to host the Games -- upon a slippery slope that leads to greater and greater persecution.
Modern-day Russia is not only a country where LGBT people and their allies are being denied their rights of expression, but one where an increasing majority of the population not only openly loathes LGBT people but believes sexual orientation to be a result of choice or malady, where neo-Nazi gangs trap and torture LGBT youth, and where LGBT protestors can be beaten in the streets before being arrested by riot police. Much like in Iran, where laws criminalizing homosexual acts and "propaganda" gave way to the denial of the very existence of Iranian homosexuals and the criminalization of homosexual identity, things are not getting better; they are getting worse.
Meanwhile, in the limited microcosm of competitive sports, as other athletic organizations side with the Russian government and stifle even the slightest of expressions, such as choice in nail color, athletes are still left muzzled and uncertainty reigns while Russia's LGBT population grows increasingly justified in being fearful not only for the rights of expression but for their very lives.
History shows us that, for an organization like the IOC, silence does not and cannot convey neutrality; silence only supports harassment, persecution and even death. This is, sadly, a trend that is only likely to increase as the Olympic Games come closer and Russia becomes more and more desperate to pretend, with the IOC, that these laws have no effect other than toward "political speech."
Yes, the train has left the station, but now it is up to new conductor Thomas Bach to determine whether it will continue to move down the same track.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this blog post inadvertently implied that the city of Sochi was selected to host the 2014 Winter Olympics after Russia passed its recent anti-"gay propaganda" law. The post has been updated accordingly.