by Nico Mara-McKay
The XXII Winter Olympic Games and the XI Paralympic Winter Games are set to take place in Sochi, Russia in February and March 2014, amid international protests, calls for boycotts and petitions to move the games, as outrage grows over the discriminatory stance the Russian government has taken on queer and transgender people.
While homosexuality was decriminalized in 1993, recent laws have severely restricted LGBQT rights. Same-sex couples are banned from adopting children, Moscow has banned gay pride parades for 100 years, and same-sex marriages are not legally recognized.
More recently Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a homophobic and discriminatory bill outlawing the public discussion of LGBQT rights or relationships, punishable by fines and even imprisonment. In addition to fines and imprisonment, foreigners may also face deportation.
Gay rights supporters in Russia have been repeatedly and publically assaulted. Recently in Moscow a gay kissing protest was broken up by police, not for the first time this year. In St Petersburg, a Gay Pride event was disrupted with shocking violence. Homophobic violence seems to be on the rise, with two gay men brutally murdered this year.
There is concern about what the law will mean for gay athletes and supporters at the Olympics. Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had previously stated athletes and visitors would not be persecuted, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko has confirmed that there will be no exemptions.
The so-called “gay propaganda” law seems to contravene the Olympic Charter, which states that “the practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind,” and further, that “any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”
As Cyd Zeigler notes in a piece written for The Huffington Post, “the Russian law doesn’t just violate one word or one clause of the Olympic Charter; it violates the entire statement. The law doesn’t just punish Russian athletes; it subjects competitors from every nation to discrimination and flies in the face of the Olympic spirit.” Zeigler goes on to make a reasonable case for banning Russia from the Olympics. It’s happened before. Between 1964 and 1991, South Africa was banned from participating over apartheid, but the IOC hasn’t yet taken that stand.
A Russian judge ruled that a Pride House would be banned from Sochi. Pride House first became a part of the games in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. It offered hospitality and resources to LGBQT athletes, their families, as well as spectators. In an interview with Canada.com, Louise Englefield, who ran the 2012 Pride House in London, called it “a visible place that allows LGBT people to have a place in the Olympic movement, that we really have a place in the Games.” Unfortunately, there will be no such safe space in Sochi.
Celebrities and public figures such as Stephen Fry, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Barack Obama, George Takei, and others have made public statements against Russian government’s stance on LGBQT rights, questioned whether the Olympics should take place in Sochi next year.
While there’s a clear problem with Russia’s stance on LGBQT people, the IOC has created its own problematic politices. In the Charter, discrimination by gender is deemed “incompatible” with the spirit of the Olympics, yet the IOC has set rules for sex verification. In a 2012 medical commission, sex and eligibility regulations were outlined as follows:
For men’s 2012 OG Competitions, only men are eligible to compete. For women’s 2012 OG Competitions, only women are eligible to compete. For mixed gender 2012 OG Competitions, such as mixed doubles in tennis, only teams composed of one male and one female are eligible to compete. For open 2012 OG Competitions, such as equestrian, both men and women are eligible to compete.
If a female athlete is deemed to have hyperandrogenism, a medical condition in which naturally high levels of androgens are produced, then she will not be permitted to compete in the Olympics as a woman. The IOC claims these women would have an unfair advantage. As Rebecca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis state in The New York Times, if you identify as a woman that should be enough. It’s worth noting that this regulation only applies to women – those who self-identify as men, if challenged, are not required to undergo sex verification testing.
Things are even murkier when considering transgender athletes. In 2004 the IOC issued the “Statement of the Stockholm consensus on sex reassignment in sports,” which states that for a person to be considered as their desired sex certain conditions must be met: surgical changes must have been completed two years prior to competing, they must have legal recognition of their sex, and hormone therapy must be in place “for a sufficient length of time to minimize gender-related advantages.”
On the surface, the Olympics Charter seems to demand social equality, but in practice the IOC denies the rights of athletes to determine their own sex or gender, or protect the rights of LGBQT athletes or spectators.
The second Fundamental Principle of Olympism is to “place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Given the above, it seems like the IOC still has a lot of work to do on determining standards for broader inclusivity.