Should the Olympics impose popular values?

Op-eds Opinions

When discriminatory notions result in malevolent action against certain groups, they should be reassessed by those in positions of power. The new law passed by the Russian government, which incriminates homosexuality and all “propaganda” surrounding it, presents a situation in which only the powerful can better the fate of an ostracized minority group. With the Olympics set to hit Sochi, Russia, in February 2014, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been put in a unique, but unenviable, position by the passing of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s discriminatory law. They’ve taken a non-partisan stance in a debate that involves human rights and LGBT activists on one side, and conservative traditionalists on the other.

If Olympic organizers decide to relocate the event or demand changes to Russian law, the scenario could be seen as a violation of free speech or autonomy. However, change for the better will require the leaders in society—those who have resources and faculties capable of altering an entire culture—to step in.

Thus far, the organizing committee has refrained from commenting on the matter, culminating in IOC-head Thomas Bach dodging the question when prompted by BBC reporters less than six months before the games’ opening ceremonies. Bach spoke out on the role of the IOC in political matters, particularly regarding host nations: “[The IOC] is not a supranational parliament of government, and our responsibility is respect for the Olympic values in the Olympic Games and its participants and, by respecting the values in the Games, sending a message to society at large.” In this rebuttal, Bach identifies his organization’s agenda whilst simultaneously unveiling its apathetic stance toward the law.

Many athletes have taken the alternate route in publicizing their beliefs. Athletes, particularly when they are at the forefront of global media during the Olympics, are incidentally positioned to influence the masses because of their mainstream appeal. Sidney Crosby, a lock to make the Canadian men’s ice hockey team, spoke out against the law, saying, “[. . .] everyone has an equal right to play.” Additionally, New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup has vowed to wear a rainbow pin at the games in protest of the exclusionary laws. Meanwhile, Russian ice hockey star Ilya Kovalchuk has offered a contrasting opinion, putting his full support behind the Russian government. He proclaimed that his country’s stance on the issue must be respected. This statement will undoubtedly procure a lot of resistance among liberal thinkers. Nevertheless, it is a viewpoint that should be respected by its detractors. Perhaps the wide world of sports offers the appropriate venue for this brand of mutual tolerance.

After all, one of the primary roles of sport in any community is to provide a healthy social outlet for people of all ages. Inclusion is vital to realizing this goal. Fitting in is a difficult process for some. That difficulty is amplified when prejudice dictates what acceptable behaviour is in a given culture. Many niches in the sporting world have yet to purge themselves of homophobic and racial tensions among participants. In general, team sports have had difficulty accepting gays. The discriminatory laws put forth prior to the Sochi games exasperate the situation. Perhaps it is within the boundaries of the state to alleviate society of the issues that perpetuate such animosity.

To many Canadians, governmental attention towards sexual orientation is a secondary issue to what are perceived as larger problems, including climate change and economic prosperity. Universal tolerance is taken for granted. However, the Russian government, and many others, seem to believe that homosexuality is immoral, even comparable to pedophilia. Additionally, many religious groups frown upon the concept, citing scripture and age-old texts.

Nevertheless, political and religious affiliations should be detached from international sporting events. The IOC should take steps to ensure the safety of minorities entering Russia during the games. Furthermore, they should engage in constructive dialogue with Putin’s government to maintain a tolerant environment for athletes and patrons alike. However, this might not be part of the host nation’s modus operandi. If this scenario doesn’t change by February, the question of whether or not Sochi is an appropriate location to host the games becomes prevalent. If, during the games, Russia enforces the anti-gay laws their legislature has passed, the IOC’s credibility and image will take a severe hit.

Here is where the line between politics and sport will be drawn.

Should the IOC decide to alter their position on the matter, and take a stance on what is widely considered a human rights violation? Or should they remain quiet and focus on facilitating another successful winter games? Either decision will qualify as pivotal within human rights history.