The Winter Olympics start in the Russian resort of Sochi on 7 February. They are destined to go down in history as the anti-gay Olympics.
But they also take place against a backdrop of generalised Kremlin repression, including the arrest of peaceful protesters and opposition leaders, the suppression of worker’s rights and the harassment of investigative journalists and human rights defenders. The attacks on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community are just one fragment of a wider attack on civil society.
We should also remember that building the Sochi infrastructure has caused huge environmental damage. The games will cost more than all the previous Winter Olympics combined – a staggering £31 billion – about half of which has been embezzled by oligarchs. These Olympics are being manipulated to fuel Putin’s revival of Great Russian chauvinism. They take place in a region from which the Circassians and other indigenous peoples were ethnically cleansed in the nineteenth century.
LGBT people are just the latest of many victims of Moscow’s strong-arm tactics – and the Winter Olympics are now the cutting edge of its homophobia, with the collusion of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The intensely homophobic atmosphere in Russia, orchestrated directly by President Putin’s government and MPs, means it would be very unlikely for an openly LGBT athlete to be selected for the Russian Olympic squad. The Kremlin has banned a Pride House – a social meeting space for gay athletes and spectators, like the one at the London 2012 Olympics.
Dozens of countries sending competitors to Sochi criminalise same-sex relationships or actively discriminate against LGBT people. None of them would be likely to allow the selection of a gay athlete for their Sochi team.
These are clear breaches of the anti-discrimination Principle Six of the Olympic Charter. Yet the IOC has said and done nothing. It is allowing the Russian government to ban the Pride House and discriminate against LGBT athletes and spectators. The IOC has also threatened that any athlete who expresses support for LGBT equality during the games will face disciplinary action, possibly including expulsion and being stripped of any medals won.
The IOC’s top priority is not Olympic values or human rights. It is driven by commercial interests. The Olympics are big business. The host nation and corporate sponsors are king. Nothing must be allowed to detract from financial success and ‘good news’ PR – certainly not the plight of Russia’s persecuted LGBTs.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics took place in an atmosphere of anti-Semitic hatred incited by the Nazi government. The 2014 Sochi Olympics echo that hatred, only this time the victims of demonisation are LGBT people.
How can there be normal sporting relations with an abnormal regime like Putin’s Russia?
Russia has enacted a harsh anti-gay law that criminalises anyone who portrays homosexuality as “interesting” or “attractive” – or who suggests that homosexuality and heterosexuality are of “equal value” – in circumstances where a person under 18 might witness it.
LGBT marches, festivals, posters, magazines, books, films and welfare advice are likely to face criminal prosecution, as will individuals who identify themselves as gay in public. Any statement that homosexuality is natural and normal will become criminal, as will the provision of gay-affirmative counselling or safer sex information to LGBT youth. It could result in the purging of books, films and plays with LGBT characters and story-lines from libraries, galleries, theatres and cinemas, including many classic works of art and literature.
It is routine for Russian MPs and media to portray LGBT people as the enemy within; equating homosexuality with paedophilia, bestiality and ‘decadent’ western values. This has prompted a surge in mob violence against LGBTs. Gay teens are lured to rendezvous and then stripped and tortured – with videos of the abuse posted online. The Russian police mostly do nothing, apart from threatening the victims who report these crimes.
This is the homophobic backdrop to the up-coming Winter Olympics. Parallels with the Nazi Olympics are obvious. No concentration camps but…
That’s why it is outrageous that UK government ministers are going to Sochi. They should, like President Obama, boycott the games and send an LGBT delegation instead. Indeed, all world leaders should stay away from the opening and closing ceremonies. Empty VIP seats would send a powerful message to Putin.
I’m hoping that some athletes and spectators will take a stand by wearing rainbow ribbons, scarves, hats and gloves and by making the Principle Six sign – five fingers and a thumb. Everyone everywhere can stand in solidarity by posting selfies doing the same. The international LGBT lobby group allout.org is planning a big Global Speak Out for Principle Six just before Sochi.
Homophobic discrimination in sport is not just a Russian and Olympic issue. It will figure big at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this summer. Eighty per cent of participating Commonwealth countries criminalise LGBT people, with penalties ranging up to life imprisonment. In more than 40 of these countries, discrimination against LGBT people is lawful, including discrimination in sport. Any athlete or coach known to be gay would most likely face arrest. They’d stand no chance of selection for Glasgow 2014. The games organisers need to address this issue. But will they?
A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Mail in Scotland. For more info about Peter Tatchell’s human rights campaigns: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org