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New York Law School 5th Annual Sports Law Symposium

By [Monday, January 27th, 2014]

Russia Threatens to Prosecute Gay Athletes at 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics

By [Wednesday, August 7th, 2013]

Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko recently announced that the country will enforce its new anti-gay laws during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.  The law, which was signed by President Vladimir Putin in late June, bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” including gay pride rallies and speaking to children about homosexuality.  Russia claims the law wasn’t designed to punish anyone for being gay or lesbian, and that athletes would be punished only for “propaganda.”  But that word remains ambiguous under the new law.  A foreign citizen who violates the law can be fined up to $3,000, spend 15 days in prison, and face deportation and denial of reentry into Russia.

Activists and organizations supportive of gay rights have called for boycotts against Russian-made products like Stolichnaya vodka, but they have yet to coalesce around a unified response to the Sochi Games.  All Out, presented a 322,000-signature petition against Russia’s anti-gay crackdown to the International Olympic Committee’s headquarters in Switzerland, seeking to push world leaders to pressure Russia to repeal the law.   An official response from the IOC is warranted given the Olympic charter’s pronouncement that sport is a “human right” that should be practiced “without discrimination of any kind.”  At the moment, the United States Olympic Committee has participated in the conversation only to reiterate the charter’s principles, and to promise efforts to ensure the safety of LGBT athletes who will be competing in the Sochi Games.

Boycotting the Sochi Games, however, seems to be off the table.  Instead athletes are calling for protests to be held during the games.  Those protests might involve anything from wearing a gay-pride pin to holding a pride parade.  And athletes might convene an impromptu “Pride House” in Sochi.  The 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2012 London Games welcomed Pride House — a meeting point and informational hub for LGBT athletes that Sochi has declined to host.  But even so much as displaying a rainbow symbol might be risky.  A Russian milk product with a rainbow in its logo was the subject of an official complaint by anti-gay groups because the rainbow resembles the symbol for the LGBT movement.

Gay rights advocates are not the only ones at risk during the Sochi games.  Journalists covering the games (including the U.S. broadcaster, NBC) may also run into trouble if they report on the issue of homosexuality while in Russia.  Openly gay foreign tourists are at risk.  And celebrities and social commentators have already come into the cross-hairs of Russian enforcement authorities.  Lady Gaga and Madonna are under investigation by Russian authorities for visa improprieties in connection with their 2012 concert tour stops in St. Petersburg.  The investigation was prompted by complaints from the Russian lawmaker who sponsored the anti-gay laws after both performers denounced the laws at their concerts.

Many observers wonder how we even arrived at this point.  Why isn’t nondiscrimination a condition for hosting the Olympic Games?  Of course that would mean only liberal democracies would get to host the Olympics, a viewpoint that some consider problematic.  We’ll track this issue as the 2014 games approach.