I care so deeply about the issue of LGBTI rights, especially amongst sportsmen and women, that earlier this year SKINS conducted a #RainbowLaces campaign in my home turf of Australia to raise awareness about homophobia in sport.
Putting aside the winter sports (which I love), there was so much that was wrong about Sochi 2014.
I’m not going to reflect on that, although it doesn’t hurt to share these social media posts as a reminder.
But I loved Sochi 2014 for one thing: the people power, the uniting of the (non-Russian) world behind the LGBTI community.
As a reminder of what it was about, in June 2013, Russia introduced a law that vilified LGBTI people and prohibited publication of information that equated a gay relationship as equivalent to a heterosexual relationship, especially in publications accessible to children (eg. the internet). It wasn’t just aimed at locals, but also foreigners and travellers who could face a fine, arrest and deportation.
The law also fuelled anti-gay violence in Russia as this shocking video from Human Rights Watch shows.
How did people power respond?
A petition with more than 300,000 names was given to the IOC that pointed to Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter; supporters ranging from Rihanna to Mark Ruffalo to Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie shared the message on social media; 50 Olympic champions joined in a campaign based on love and equality for all; IOC sponsors were lobbied; a day of protest was held in 19 cities around the world; and world leaders such as then UK PM, David Cameron, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon supported the campaign.
How did the IOC respond?
They issued a statement (whoopee-do) noting their “long commitment to non-discrimination”.
How did sponsors respond?
As I mentioned in a blog in May, American domestic sponsor AT&T were strong on this issue, but major Olympic sponsors of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and VISA did nothing but issue bland statements concerning anti-discrimination, without any reference to Russia’s anti-gay law.
How did President Putin respond?
Inflaming the issue further, Putin said:
“We do not ban anyone or anything. We don’t detain people on the street. We don’t hold anyone responsible for those relations, unlike a lot of other countries in the world. That’s why you can feel free, relaxed, but leave children in peace, please.”
The fact that all the IOC did was issue a statement, and not pursue the matter with Putin, was a disgraceful lack of leadership by Thomas Bach and the IOC.
A real leader would have sat down with Putin and explained that the reason he was spending US$54 billion on staging the games is to reflect Russia in the most positive light possible. If Putin insisted on pursing this prejudicial legislation against the LGBTI community, Bach should have brought together the top Olympic sponsors for a press conference to condemn Putin and Russia.
I am pragmatic enough to understand that it was too late (let alone whether they had a legal right) to take the Sochi games off Russia. But they could, and should, have been publicly humiliated by the IOC which, as I pointed out in this blog, has inclusivity as its raison d’être. (Just as they ought to be in relation to state-sponsored doping charges, but that’s another story).
Bach had too much of a personal conflict because of his friendship with Putin. In fact, it’s a friendship that strays into being an IOU because Putin is credited with making sure Bach got the job in the first place. As a result, the Olympic movement is worse off, adding to the litany of examples of lack of leadership.
The power of people to change things encourages me.
No, we didn’t change the Russian law or even attitudes on this occasion. But each time people get together to advocate for change that is good and right, or on behalf of people who are oppressed, it lands a blow.
We keep going because, individually and collectively, we will make a difference.