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Pride and Prejudice at the Winter Olympics

  • By Martin Polley
  • 28th August 2013
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Why has the International Olympic Committee not spoken out in support of LGBT athletes, journalists and spectators, who will face curbs on their freedom of expression by attending the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year? Sports historian Martin Polley explains the historical context of the IOC's actions, and its attempts to keep sport free from politics.

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”  – (Fundamental Principles of Olympism no. 4 from the IOC Charter)

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose the Russian city of Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, they must have known that they were in for a controversial time. Concerns about the environmental impact of the Games blended with a general uneasiness about the decline in human rights in Putin's Russia, while the hosts' apparent disregard for Circassian history by placing the snowboarding events on Red Hill, the site of a Tsarist massacre in 1864, brought an unresolved ethnic dispute into the mix. Now that the Games are just six months away, it is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) rights that have pushed the politics of Sochi on to the front page.

Russia's draconian laws against the promotion of homosexuality have angered LGBT rights campaigners worldwide, and some have used the occasion of the Olympics to draw attention to the issue. These opponents argue that LGBT athletes, journalists, and spectators will not be made welcome in Sochi, that they risk verbal and physical abuse, and that they could face arrest if they live their regular lives while at the sporting festival that is supposed to promote the Olympic ideals of Friendship and Respect.

To date, the IOC has signally failed to address this. They are taking the predictable line that visitors to any country should abide by that country's laws, and they are even failing to insist on the hosts providing a Pride House despite the success of these venues at Vancouver in 2010 and London in 2012. Apparently, a Russian judge's claim that a Pride House 'contradicts the basics of public morality…in the area of family motherhood and childhood protection', and that it 'breaches the understanding of good and evil [and] vice and virtue' was good enough for the IOC. Moreover, the IOC has made it clear that it will not tolerate any symbolic protests, such as athletes wearing rainbow badges or armbands, or holding hands with each other at ceremonies. Such protests would be banned under the IOC's Charter's blanket proscription: 'No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas'. (Presumably, no-one at the IOC can have understood Danny Boyle's elegy to the NHS at the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, but that is another story). As a result, LGBT athletes and other visitors face major curtailments on their liberties and lifestyles, curtailments that the IOC appear to be condoning.

In such an emotive and controversial setting, where the IOC is being widely derided in both LGBT and mainstream media for doing Russia's dirty work, it is worth looking for some historical parallels to see how Olympic authorities have acted in the past. Have they always marginalised the agitators and defended the hosts, however illiberal they have been? Have they always tried to place the Olympics above and beyond political debates, as if they exist in a vacuum?

The IOC was founded in 1894, thanks largely to the efforts of Pierre de Coubertin, a French educational reformer. He believed that regular international sporting and cultural festivals would help to promote world peace: if people replaced the battlefield with the sports field, he believed, then differences could be settled without bloodshed; and if people met each other under conditions of 'friendly rivalry', then increased mutual awareness would undermine the need for war. All highly idealistic, of course, and it all seemed gloriously irrelevant by 1914, but the modern sense of Olympism has evolved from these foundations, and any attempt to understand why the IOC tries to co-operate with repressive hosts has to be rooted in these original ideas. Since the IOC embraced commercialism in the 1980s, that idealism has become blended with an economic imperative. Now, while the IOC Charter embodies a liberal agenda of anti-discrimination, the interest of sponsors, broadcasters, and host governments will always influence the IOC's stance on any political issue. Thus any call for an Olympic boycott not only shuts down the chance to promote mutual awareness: it also costs marketing revenue and television rights. It is hardly surprising that the IOC consistently resists such calls, and it is unlikely that anything will change before the Sochi Olympics start. However, the historical development of this position shows that while the IOC has often been the guardian of the status quo, it has, at times, had a more progressive approach. 

In 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany, they inherited the commitment to host the 1936 Winter and Summer Olympics. The IOC, aware of the Nazis' racial policies, showed great foresight in extracting guarantees from the hosts that the Games would not be run on racial lines. In particular, they called for an assurance that no Jewish German athletes would be barred from the German team. In hindsight, this seems remarkably quixotic: a government that was capable of passing the Nuremberg Laws just five months before the Winter Olympics started was hardly going to promote multicultural sport. In the event, the IOC ignored the calls for the Games to be moved, calls that came from groups and individuals within Jewish, Christian, trade union, and labour communities across the world. However, the fact that they had intervened to get the assurances suggested a genuine idealism at work.

With the obvious exceptions of 1916, 1940, and 1944, the IOC always resisted calls to move or cancel the Olympics when the hosts or some participants have been involved in wars and invasions. The most famous example comes from 1980, when the IOC refused to move the Olympics from Moscow despite the fact that the USA led a boycott which 61 other countries joined. The 1956 Melbourne Olympics also suffered from this type of boycott, with Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon staying away over Suez, and Spain, the Netherlands, and Switzerland following suit over the USSR's invasion of Hungary. In these cases, and in response to boycotts calls in 2008 over China's presence in Tibet, the IOC's line has been consistent: the Games should be above such disputes. Opponents, whether they be non-governmental groups like Free Tibet or major governments like Jimmy Carter's administration in the USA, never win in this kind of confrontation with the IOC. It is the clearest legacy of Coubertin's belief in the playing field winning out over the battlefield.

The key issue on which the IOC followed a progressive political line came in the early 1960s, when they expelled South Africa from the Olympic movement due to their racially segregated sport system. This was followed in 1972 by the expulsion of Rhodesia. In both cases, the IOC opted for this ultimate sanction because it was clear that the two countries were not going to change their racist systems through conversation, and that their presence would cause constant offence to the vast majority of other countries involved, and to the black athletes from around the world. The expulsions stood until the countries changed: Zimbabwe re-entered the Games in 1980, and South Africa came back at Barcelona in 1992. The IOC's actions, when linked to the wider sporting, cultural, and trade sanctions, helped to keep the evils of apartheid in the public mind. It is this precedent of the IOC taking a stand against discriminatory laws that must remain uppermost in the minds of the LGBT campaigners over Sochi. 

With this history in mind, it is safe to assume that Russia won’t change to suit a different culture, the sponsors and broadcasters won't want their show disrupted, and the Games will go ahead with the laws in place. The issue of LGBT rights will not command the global condemnation that apartheid did: after all, the last time the Winter Olympics were held in the USA, at Salt Lake City in 2002, sodomy was still illegal in Utah, and homosexual acts remain capital offences in some Muslim-majority countries. Indeed, the 2022 FIFA World Cup is due to take place in Qatar, where male homosexual behaviour is punished with the lash, imprisonment, hormone therapy, and deportation.

However, the Sochi debate has already helped to clarify some themes in our understanding of LGBT politics. The very fact that this discussion is happening suggests that intolerance of sexual differences is becoming as unacceptable in liberal opinion as intolerance of racial, gender, and religious differences. The fact that sport is being used as a vehicle to promote a greater understanding of sexual identities says something about how sport's culture is changing. British press coverage has largely been positive about the debate, particularly after Stephen Fry's intervention. David Cameron has not backed a boycott, but his condemnation of the Russian laws fits perfectly with his support for same sex marriages – and let's not forget that it was as recently as 1988 that his own party introduced Section 28, so his attitude really shows how far we have come. Finally, it is to be hoped that the IOC will learn from history: the Olympic Charter currently opposes discrimination 'on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise', and Sochi seems to provide the perfect opportunity for them to identify sexual orientation by name as something that deserves respect and protection.

Martin PolleyMartinpolley.co.uk@HistoryMartin

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