Nationalism is the main event at any Olympic Games, and the Olympic industry relies on the goosebumps effects of the sporting spectacle to divert public attention from its less attractive underbelly, in this case, the International Olympic Committee’s complete refusal to challenge Putin’s Russia and its human rights violations. Instead, it has taken its usual hands-off approach, clinging to the myth that sport and politics don’t mix. As David Rowe quipped on this site, “Sport and politics don’t just mix, they’re married with children.”
A century in the making, Russia’s anti-gay laws reflect decades of sexual repression in the former Soviet Union. Despite societal changes in Russia since 1993, there is still limited acceptance of sexual minorities. President Putin’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church has strengthened his power and popularity among older, conservative Russians, and his law banning so-called “gay propaganda” was passed with no opposing votes in June 2013.
Since that time, there has been an increase in homophobic violence carried out by vigilante groups. Like Putin, elected officials and church leaders link homosexuality with paedophilia, and claim to be protecting Russia’s children.
Putin invokes his “demographic crisis” rationale when defending the law to western audiences. With his country’s low birthrates and high mortality rates, he claims that exposure to the mere idea of homosexuality will lead youth to become gay or lesbian, with resulting threats to the next generation (since he seems to believe that gays and lesbians never become parents). Speaking to domestic audiences, he calls on Russian women to reproduce for the sake of the country’s future, pointing to nations that protect sexual minorities as examples of western decadence and declining populations.
In its inadequate response to yet another human rights crisis in an Olympic host country (Beijing in 2008 and Berlin in 1936 are earlier examples) the International Olympic Committee relied on the myth that sport is apolitical. Once again, this strategy worked. Magical thinking that sport unites the world led many critics to oppose an Olympic boycott. Many opponents claim boycotts are ineffective because they hurt only the athletes, who had been training and making sacrifices for years in order to represent their countries at the Olympics. Such statements imply that the rights of high-performance athletes were more important than the rights of millions of GLBTI people. It was equally disturbing to see a world leader such as President Obama appearing to justify his anti-boycott position on these grounds, thereby implying that his country’s foreign policy was influenced by 230 American athletes. However, the fact that neither he, nor Michelle Obama, nor any high-ranking American politician will be attending the Olympics, and the inclusion of three openly gay athletes in the American VIP party conveys a clear message to Putin.
Some critics called on the IOC to intervene to change Russia’s law, on the grounds that the Olympic Charter guarantees freedom from discrimination. In fact, a closer reading shows that the anti-discrimination clause applies specifically to the practice of sport, and is not violated as long as athletes are not disqualified because of “race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise”. If a country that was guilty of systemic as opposed to sporting racism, sexism or homophobia, were to be disqualified, the Olympics wouldn’t have survived into the 21st century.
Putin’s Russia and the IOC are, in fact, well matched. Common features include undemocratic governance, lack of transparency and accountability, unfair voting processes, moral bankruptcy in leadership, homophobia and lesbian/gay invisibility, and reliance on religious or pseudo-religious rhetoric to justify “sport-as-special” propaganda.
The Olympic myth that sport is apolitical has remarkable endurance, as does the Olympic promise of peace and harmony among nations through sport. If sport is apolitical, it is, of course, illogical to promise political outcomes, but mythology defies logic when the Circus Maximus is involved.