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Russian Crackdown Causes Worries About Sochi

by Alexandra Stevenson

(August 15, 2013)  Robin Cousins, the British 1980 Olympic gold medalist, who attended the Team GB Media Summit in the beautiful, University campus of the historic town of Bath, on August 9, was grilled about his feelings on the recently passed law in Russia which clamps down very severely on gays. This has caused worries about the possible treatment of athletes and spectators traveling to Sochi for February’s Winter Olympic Games in the south of the country.

The new ruling makes it illegal to even talk about homosexuality if a person who is under 18 might be listening. In London, hundreds subsequently put on a demonstration calling the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, “The Czar of Homophobia”.

Cousins, who will be a television commentator at the Games, and is currently serving as a mentor to potential Olympians, said he was absolutely shocked by the action. But, he is against a boycott because it would deprive some athletes of their only chance to compete in the Games. (Cousins had two Games, 1976, in which he finished 10th behind John Curry, and his gold medal success in the following Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. However, the vast majority of athletes get only one go.)

The figure skating world has definitely been affected by this shocking development. In the United States, Johnny Weir has led the reaction. He said that he and many of his friends may be cancelling their plans to attend the event. Weir placed 5th and 6th in the past two Olympics.

There is a great deal of discussion in all sports about the situation. The timing seems strange. Why not wait till after the Games, just a few months away, to pass such a controversial ruling? Why did Putin, a former KGB Secret Police Agent, bring this development into play now, and not after the Games, when less attention would be focused on the country?

Was it because of his antagonism against the figure skating officials who voted for the US’s Evan Lysacek in a very close win in the last Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 over Russia’s defending champion, Evgeni Plushenko, whom Putin has befriended and had advised to follow him into a political career. (Plushenko told this reporter, he tried going that route, but there was much, too much sitting in meetings and making compromises. It was all so boring!”

It was Plushenko who helped Putin get these Games. The bidding decision was made in Guatamala City in 2007. Putin set up a novelty outdoor ice surface near the IOC  hotel, where Plushenko skated and talked to the delegates, many of whom were from nations which do not have ice rinks. After three days, this arrangement was shut down, having been deemed “illegal” and unfair politicking for their 2014 bid. But much good will had been gained and many delegates, particularly those whose countries had no winter sport activity, voted for Sochi over the favorite, South Korea’s Pyenongchang which will host in 2018.

Gerhard Heibert of Norway, who was responsible for the success of the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, told the Associated Press, “The Russians accepted the requirements of the Olympic Chapter given in the host city contract. They must either respect it, or we have to say Goodbye to them.”

The Lillehammer Games earned incredible success, due, in part, to the failure of the USOC to prevent Tonya Harding from competing alongside her US team mate, Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan was attacked by an associate of Harding’s husband, who bashed her shin, taking her out of the US Nationals, which were the trials for the Olympic team. (Kerrigan recovered and earned Olympic silver, while Harding placed 8th and was thrown out of the sport. She now appears regularly on a realty television show about showing the stupid moves people make.)

President Barak Obama, along with many other western politicians including those in Britain’s Downing Street, has strongly criticized Putin this antagonistic development. In a televised interview on the Tonight Show, he declared, "I have no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians or transgender persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them. I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work, and I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently.”

Others are likening the action to that against the Jewish religion and blacks which marred the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany.

David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, has raised the issue with President Putin and a Downing Street spokesman said the British government was "greatly concerned". Neither leader is calling for the Winter Olympics to be moved, which would be completely unpractical. Cameron said, “I believe we can better challenge prejudice by attending the event and spreading our views, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”

Lord Sebastian Coe, who heads the British Olympic Committee, said, “I don’t think boycotts achieve what they set out to do. The only damage is to one group of people, and that is the athletes.” He said he felt his attendance in the 1980 Summer Moscow Olympics, in which he won gold in the 1,500 meters, brought people together and that led to change, particularly the later fall of the East German. Sport is not an inhibitor of change. It actually has quite strong catalytic effects.

Those Games, however, were boycotted by the United States. The reason was to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

IOC President, Jacques Rogge, said the Olympic Charter is very clear. Playing sport is a human right and should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation. Apparently Russian politicians have claimed that they have guaranteed that requirement, but there is still discussion about the signed document, possibly due to the translation.

There is also the problem that the Olympic charter prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the Games. What if, as has been suggested, teams secret a symbol supporting gay rights in their team uniform, and bring it out during the Opening Ceremony, or merely make a political gesture?

That ruling was created after the 1968 Mexico City Summer Olympics. Two Americans, Tommie Smith, who had just won the 200 meter race, and the bronze medalist John Carlos, also from the US, climbed on the victory podium shoeless and wearing black socks and a black boxing glove on one hand. When the US anthem began playing, they thrust an arm up into the air. It was a shocking call for black rights.

As is often the case, it is television which will probably be critical in deciding the issue. NBC, the official US feed, paid a lot of money for the right to broadcast the Games. If they pulled out the legal ramifications would be mind boggling.

Among the Americans who have been outraged is famous Star Trek actor, George Takei, who played the helmsman of the USS Starship Enterprise. Takei blogged that Russia’s ban “on propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” and its imposition of heavy fines, “directly contravenes the IOC’s principles.” He argued such intolerance wouldn’t be accepted if it were aimed at Jews, Roman Catholics or Muslims.

He has called for the Games to be transferred to Vancouver, which just isn’t practical given the limited time before the Games and the unwillingness of the Canadian government to provide the necessary funding to get the sites back into top shape.