Should the Winter Olympics go ahead?

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Russia should not have been allowed to host the Winter Olympics; that is the truth of the matter. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has argued that it cannot enter into a political debate about Sochi 2014, and that sport and politics should not mix. Yet despite this, principle six of the Olympic Charter states: “sport does not discriminate on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise.” Surely the politics of the nation hosting the sporting event should also abide by those rules. Allowing Russia to host the Winter Olympics in spite of this is complying to and giving approval to the politics of that particular nation.

I am, of course, alluding to the oppression of homosexuals in Russia, and in particular the propaganda law which was brought into effect in June of last year. The law is veiled as a “child protection” law, which in turn appears to equate homosexuality to paedophilia and hopes to prevent the promotion of “non-traditional sexual relations” to under 18s. As part of this law, fines can be given to those who are deemed to promote “illegal” information, which range from 4,000 rubles (£70) for individuals to one million rubles (£17,551) for organisations. The principal issue with the law is that it is far too open to interpretation, and what constitutes “propaganda” is not clearly defined. The notion of “gay propaganda” is ludicrous; it suggests that a child, on hearing about homosexuality, would suddenly fancy giving it a try as though they were trying out at a local sports team.

Homosexuality is not a criminal offence, and the age of consent is 16 as with heterosexual relationships. However, in the face of this lies research by the likes of Iliga-Europe, an International Gay Watchdog, which rated Russia to be the hardest nation in Europe for homosexuals to live in as there is no law enforced to prevent discrimination. This has been attributed in part to conservative religious values, in particular within the Orthodox Christian population. Russia claims that it is protecting its religious traditions, but I would argue that a nation’s traditions do not legitimise discrimination. This is a human rights issue, not an issue involving the misunderstanding of culture.

There have been assurances from the IOC that the legislation won’t affect those attending or partaking in the games, but if a foreigner is found guilty under the child protection law, they can be fined, jailed for 15 days, and deported. The athletes themselves could face punishment if they express contradicting opinions or protest during the competition or its opening ceremonies. They are, however, allowed to protest in press conferences or in special “protest zones” eleven miles away from the Olympic village – the parts of the winter Olympics everyone is going to be watching, of course.

Team GB should not, however, boycott the Winter Olympics. The issue with boycotting is that it is such a political act, which could disrupt diplomacy with Russia on other issues, particularly as Russia is one of the only nations to have maintained constructive relations with Syria. By all means allow individual athletes to boycott the games, but do not force them to. To do so feels like the athletes are being punished for something out of their control. Some of them are at the prime of their career, and these games represent their best chance of winning a gold medal, something they have been working their entire life to achieve. They are there to compete at the Olympics; the politics of the nation shouldn’t be their concern. Stephen Fry for example has said that we should challenge prejudice, and along with Obama, has suggested that at these games we should encourage “Jessie Owens” characters – winning gold medals in the face of discrimination. Obama has set a great example by naming prominent LGBT athletes in the US Olympic delegation such as Billie Jean King and Caitlin Cahow.

The IOC has bottled it by allowing the games to go ahead in the face of huge protests. Their claim that sport and politics don’t mix is nonsense. In 1964 Apartheid South Africa was banned from participating at the Tokyo Summer Olympics, and did not participate in any international sport competition until 1992. For a more contemporary example, at the London 2012 games, pressure from various parties, including the IOC, led to Saudi Arabia performing a U-turn and taking female athletes in their team. Hopefully, the lack of intervention in this case will serve only to highlight the importance of the IOC to abide by its own principles in the future.

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