"We don't have them in our town," proclaimed the mayor of Sochi, Anatoli Pakhomov, about gay people.
For the time being, until the world's focus moves on, it seems Putin is asking vigilante groups that attack and torment Russian gays, empowered and emboldened by state-sponsored homophobia and the country's anti-gay laws, to stand down during the Olympic Games.
This has satisfied the International Olympic Committee. Content to overlook Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter, which proclaims "any form of discrimination" as "incompatible with the Olympic Movement," the IOC has abandoned LGBT athletes, spectators, and Russians, revealing a moral cowardice that stands in stark contrast to the courage and principles that guide Olympic athletes.
In case any athlete dares to use his or her moment in the spotlight to reaffirm Principle 6, for those too afraid to stand up, IOC President Thomas Bach has reminded athletes that they could be punished if they use the podium to protest. The last thing the IOC needs is for athletes to outshine it when it comes to being virtuous.
Speaking this past fall, IOC Chairman Jean-Claude Killy defended its policy of indifference, "The IOC doesn't really have the right to discuss the laws in the country where the Olympic Games are organized. As long as the Olympic Charter is respected, we are satisfied, and that is the case."
But that's not true. It's delusional to think the Olympic Charter is being respected, and past instances of Charter violations have prompted even more than IOC statements. Human rights abuses led to apartheid South Africa and Taliban Afghanistan being banned from the Olympics.
The truth is that when it's convenient, or easy, the IOC has no problem taking action. But not wanting to test the Siberian tiger, the IOC has shown that it only has the courage to stand up for straight athletes. Seeking assurances from a thug president that athletes and spectators with "non-traditional" lifestyles will not be harassed or arrested during the Games (now with the caveat that they leave children alone), hardly counts as standing up for LGBT athletes, or the Olympic Charter.
In the long history of the Olympic movement, Sochi will be remembered in part for the IOC's unwillingness to defend its own athletes. Its silence on their behalf will speak volumes.
President Obama is sending three openly gay athletes in his place as part of the US delegation. As if the organization hadn't done enough to demonstrate to LGBT athletes that its support lies unequivocally with President Putin and Russian persecution, IOC member Mario Pescante called President Obama's decision "absurd". Mr. Pescante was trying to argue that politics should not "interfere with the Olympics".
What Mr. Pescante and the IOC don't recognize, however, is that this isn't about politics. When an athlete can't comfortably be who he or she is, won't embrace his or her partner after crossing the finish line out of fear, or when two fans -- Russian or Canadian, can't embrace after a win or loss -- afraid of vigilante justice, this isn't about politics. Would the IOC be so ignorant to let Saudi Arabia host the Games and accept its assurances that female athletes and spectators will be respected?
In Sochi the IOC has looked hatred and bigotry head on and averted its gaze.
In the face of a morally bankrupt IOC, it has fallen to the athletes themselves to stand up for one another. Athlete Ally, a collection of professional and Olympic athletes, has come together to promote the message of Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter. It includes New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who is gay, Canadian skier Mike Janyk, and numerous others. With their Principle 6 spirits, shirts and avatars, they are bringing the real Olympic message to Sochi. Other athletes too, one way or another, with their clothes or gestures, will make their own statements, on or off the podium, in favour of inclusivity for all. Even the Dutch brass band that always performs at Olympic speed skating events is considering how it will take a stand.
When the flame is lit next week in Sochi the focus should be on the athletes and their achievements. They should not be punished by distracting sideshows because the IOC has abdicated its responsibilities as guardian of the Olympic Charter. But support for the athletes also means supporting any decisions they take to stand up for true Olympic values. After all, someone has to.
Should the IOC decide, and let's not put it past them, to reprimand those athletes who do take a stand, we -- athletes and citizens of conscious alike, can come together afterwards and award the IOC its own medal -- a gold, in cowardice.
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