The Olympics and Human Rights: Does the IOC Finally Get It?
After all the protests, the outrage and the human rights abuses, the Sochi Olympics has come to an end. As we transition into the Paralympics, are there signs that the IOC is finally getting the message about Russia’s anti-human rights laws?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the group responsible for selecting hosts for the Olympics and overseeing that host countries fulfill their promises during the games, has indicated that it has heard the mountain of criticism it has received over Russia’s hosting the Olympic and Paralympic games when the country severely regressed on human rights — and, in particular, gay rights — and may be willing to call for stricter adherence to the Olympic Charter’s nondiscrimination provisions.
In the past week, IOC spokesman Mark Adams remained defiant that Principle 6, the nondiscrimination provision in the Olympic Charter, has been adhered to during Sochi, but appears to recognize there is room to improve the way the IOC approaches sexuality in its selection criteria:
“We have made it absolutely crystal clear that Principle 6 covers all forms of discrimination,” he is quoted as saying. With regards to amending the document to make it explicitly gay inclusive, he added, “Could it be changed? It can be changed. We are, as you know, in the middle of Agenda 2020 which is looking at just about everything on how Olympics are run.”
In addition to this, IOC President Thomas Bach, a man heavily criticized for his unwillingness to broach the topic of Russia’s newly enacted anti-gay laws, announced shortly after the Sochi Olympics got underway that there is a wide-ranging review currently being undertaken and that, while Principle 6 is not something that is specifically slated for attention, strong public opinion could force a review.
When we have a trans politician and LGBT rights advocates arrested by Russian authorities, when members of Pussy Riot are on film being whipped for protesting, and when the Putin administration is rewarding state media figures who previously said “gay hearts should be burned” among other violent and vile things, the IOC has a lot of work to do in order to restore confidence that its Charter means anything at all. So, what exact changes would help the IOC and the rest of the Olympic interests move on from the Sochi affair?
First, nothing short of making a commitment against discrimination a binding condition of hosting the Olympics will suffice.
The IOC has consistently dodged any questions of advocacy, claiming it is non-political. However, when countries use the Olympics for tourism and to raise their international profile, we know the Olympics does contribute to the political power of the administration and its policies, and to pretend otherwise is facile. Therefore, a commitment to non-discrimination isn’t far enough. The Olympics should also concern itself with helping countries kindle and maintain the Olympic spirit long after the games themselves have finished, ensuring that the “Olympic legacy” isn’t just monetary or about sport, but instead also about improving a country’s human rights landscape in keeping with the sporting ideals the IOC claims the Olympics is about.
The countries currently in the running for 2022 Winter Olympics include Beijing, whose human rights failures were highlighted when Beijing hosted the summer Olympics in 2008, the Ukraine, Oslo in Norway, Poland’s Krakow and Kazakhstan’s Almaty. Several of those nations still have laws that either ignore LGBT rights or in some cases criminalize LGBT people. If the IOC really does understand why it has received so much criticism, it cannot afford to ignore those issues going forward.
Does the IOC finally get how it so badly failed the LGBT community by failing to address Russia’s anti-LGBT stance? It’s too soon to tell but it will be the IOC’s actions that matter, not its words, as the process to select the next host gets underway. Meanwhile, as many other activists have pointed out, Russians must now deal with the country’s human rights restrictions once the Olympic and Paralympic flame and its rosy spotlight has left.
Photo credit: kenyee via flickr.