The World Athletics Championships have just been held in Moscow, but most attention with regards to sport and Russia has been on the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
The situation in Russia has never been good for the LGBT community but it is worsening. In recent years we’ve seen Pride marches being banned or broken up by the police or gangs of thugs as the police stand by; LGBT groups prosecuted under ‘foreign agent’ laws; and now the Russian parliament under the guise of ‘protecting children’ has passed a law that is just one step short of making LGBT people illegal. The result has been more violence including the kidnapping and torture of teenagers suspected of being gay.
It’s with this background that the Winter Olympics takes place, challenging Olympic ideals of respect, friendship and building a better world. The new law doesn’t just affect Russians – LGBT visitors are affected, risking imprisonment and being deported. This has raised questions over the safety of both athletes and visitors to Sochi next year, something the Russian government has failed to properly answer with the International Olympic Committee having to ask for clarification about protection for athletes and spectators.
Predictably the international sporting establishment has been weak in its response and failed to adequately respond. This shouldn’t really surprise anyone; sporting organisations’ reaction to a range of equalities issues has regularly been poor. The International Association of Athletics Federations (more on them later) did finally call on Russia to ‘reconsider’ its homophobic laws but said the athletics championships in Moscow should not be overshadowed by politics. And, while the IOC has said it will move to protect LGBT athletes, it has also said athletes showing support for the LGBT community may be punished. Heaven forfend that anything as murky as civil rights should overshadow a sporting event.
There is a wider problem in that sport remains locked in another world the rest of us left behind at least 25 years ago, a world where openly LGBT people are few and far between, where people are encouraged to stay in the closet, and where the rhetoric of inclusion and tolerance rarely matches up to the action taken. Even at London 2012, in one of the most advanced countries for LGBT rights, there were only 22 openly LGBT athletes out of 15,000 taking part.
The question is now how the world reacts to the deteriorating situation in Russia. There have been calls for a boycott of Sochi (strongly opposed by the British Olympic Association and the UK government) through to Stephen Fry’s well-publicised called for the Winter Games to be moved from Russia altogether.
Neither of these is likely to happen but that doesn’t mean the international community can do nothing. The IOC must ensure that LGBT community Olympic events are allowed to take place (a request the authorities in Sochi have resisted). Calls by LGBT sporting groups to update the Olympic Charter so it is formally opposed to discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity must be followed through. Additionally ensuring countries that discriminate against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity should not be qualified to bid for or host Olympic Games, or other major sporting events (the World Cup in Qatar is another example of a host country with poor equality and civil rights), is clear statement of support for the LGBT community and message about the values of the Olympic movement.
This could be a turning point for LGBT people and sport. It’s time to for the world of sport to stand up and be counted, and if the sporting bodies won’t shine a light on what is happening, competitors must.
We should applaud the examples of US athlete, Nick Symmonds who spoke out against Russian anti-gay laws in Moscow and dedicated his silver medal in the men’s 800m to his lesbian and gay friends. Also that of Swedish high jumper Emma Green-Tregaro, who showed her support for the Russian LGBT community by painting her nails in rainbow colours, though she was then told by the International Association of Athletics Federations that she may be in violation of the code of conduct – so much for their gentle calls for Russia to ‘reconsider’ its law.
The sporting world can’t exist in a bubble, wearing blinkers and blind to what is going on beyond the stadiums and the athletes’ village. Sport in the past has been used successfully to bring pressure on governments, and this can work again. Additionally we are not going to see more openly LGBT sportsmen and women until the sports world does more than deliver platitudes towards equality. The world has a chance next February to make a stand on behalf of LGBT people in Russia and beyond. It’ll live to regret it if it doesn’t.
James Asser is co-chair of LGBT Labour and chair of Labour’s Socialist Societies executive. He tweets @JamesAsser
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