Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
GET UPDATES FROM Josh D. Scheinert

The IOC Deserves a Gold Medal in Cowardice

Posted: 01/29/2014 11:33 am

"We don't have them in our town," proclaimed the mayor of Sochi, Anatoli Pakhomov, about gay people.

If gays do manage to penetrate Sochi, President Vladimir Putin, speaking in a shirt and without his horse, said they would be safe so long they "leave kids alone, please."

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.


Loading Slideshow...
  • Mikhail Baryshnikov

    The Russian dance legend and actor ("Sex and the City") sounded off on the controversial legislation in an exclusive statement for the No More Fear Foundation, an international LGBT advocacy organization. "My life has been immensely enriched by gay mentors, colleagues and friends and any discrimination and persecution of gay people is unacceptable," Baryshnikov, 65, said. "Equal treatment of people is a basic right and it is sad that we still have to even speak about this in [the] 21st century." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/15/mikhail-baryshnikov-russia-gay-law-_n_4100754.html" target="_blank">Read the full story here</a>.

  • Tilda Swinton

    A photograph of the Academy Award-winning actress defending Russia's beleaguered lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community by holding a rainbow flag in front of Moscow's Kremlin was released with the following statement via her spokesperson: "In solidarity. From Russia with love." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/05/tilda-swinton-rainbow-flag-russia-_n_3550360.html" target="_blank">Read the full story here</a>.

  • Seth Wescott

    "The human rights stuff that's going on, there's a potential for it to be an incredibly negatively-overshadowed Olympics," the two-time gold medal winning snowboarder told the Associated Press. Of his gay friends in snowboarding, he noted, "They're wonderful human beings, and I think for them to be discriminated against is a crime." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/12/seth-wescott-russia-gay-law-_n_3913225.html" target="_blank">Read the full story here</a>.

  • Madonna

    The Material Girl sparked controversy when she spoke out in defense of Russia's LGBT community during a St. Petersburg stop on her MDNA World Tour last year. Performing in black lingerie with the words "No Fear" scrawled on her bare back, Madonna urged the audience -- most wearing pink wrist bands distributed at the door -- to "show your love and appreciation to the gay community." "We want to fight for the right to be free," she said at the time, Reuters reported. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/09/madonna-st-petersburg-russia-gay-rights_n_1762135.html" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>.

  • Johnny Weir

    The U.S. figure skater (pictured on right, with husband Victor Voronov) has spoken out against a planned boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, warning that those hurt most would be the athletes who have "dedicated their lives to possibly having their lone life-changing moment." "The Olympics are not a political statement, they are a place to let the world shine in peace and let them marvel at their youthful talents," he wrote. "I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia’s stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/07/26/johnny-weir-russia-olympics-boycott-_n_3659423.html" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>. <em>CORRECTION: The original version of this slideshow misidentified Johnny Weir as Victor Voronov. </em>

  • Lady Gaga

    "The Russian government is criminal," the Mother Monster tweeted in August. "Oppression will be met with revolution. Russian LGBTs you are not alone. We will fight for your freedom." She also noted: "Sending bravery to LGBTs in Russia. The rise in government abuse is archaic. Hosing teenagers with pepper spray? Beatings? Mother Russia?" <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/05/lady-gaga-russia-lgbt_n_3708608.html" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>.

  • Elton John

    In spite of Russia's anti-gay legislation, the Rocket Man has vowed not to cancel his forthcoming Moscow performance. "As a gay man, I can’t leave those people on their own without going over there and supporting them," he said. "I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’ve got to go." Read the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/17/elton-john-russia-gay-law-_n_3942870.html" target="_blank">full story here</a>.

  • Cher

    The legendary singer-actress said she turned down the chance to perform at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi because of Russia's anti-gay law. "I can’t name names but my friend called who is a big oligarch over there, and asked me if I’d like to be an ambassador for the Olympics and open the show," Cher told Maclean's writer Elio Iannacci. "I immediately said no. I want to know why all of this gay hate just exploded over there." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/09/13/cher-sochi-olympics-russia_n_3921419.html" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>.

  • Blake Skjellerup

    The New Zealand speed skater, who is openly gay, told HuffPost Live's Josh Zepps that a boycott would hurt the athletes themselves more than Russia. "I don't support a boycott at all," he said. "I believe the greatest way to bring about change is to have a presence. Being present in Sochi is going to be greater for the cause than not being there at all." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/01/blake-skjellerup-russia_n_3689573.html" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>.

  • Nick Symmonds

    After winning a silver medal at the World Track & Field Championships in Moscow on Aug. 13, the American middle distance runner openly dedicated the victory to his gay and lesbian friends in his home country. The act reportedly makes Symmonds the first athlete to critique and oppose Russia's anti-gay legislation while in Russia. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/14/nick-symmonds-gays-russia_n_3755462.html" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>.

  • Greg Louganis

    The Olympic diving champion rejected the possibility of a boycott against the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia in a Policymic editorial. "Boycotting sends the wrong message and will only harm the hard-working athletes set to compete in the 2014 Olympics, not the Russian government itself," he wrote. "I know from personal experience. My first Olympics I won Silver at age 16, and then in 1980, at the height of my diving career, President Jimmy Carter opted to boycott the 1980 Olympics in Moscow as a method of protesting the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. The toll on fellow athletes and me was devastating." <a href="http://www.policymic.com/articles/58481/i-m-an-openly-gay-gold-medalist-and-i-reject-the-sochi-olympics-boycott" target="_blank">Click here for the full story</a>.


Follow Josh D. Scheinert on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joshscheinert