Sochi Olympics: will Russia's anti-gay law disrupt Games?

Dec 10, 2013

Stephen Fry says Russia should be stripped of Games because of 'homophobic' law, but many disagree

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THE opening ceremony is still several months away, but the Sochi Winter Olympics are already controversial. It’s not just the massive cost - although the $51bn price tag is eye watering. Nor is it just the allegations of corruption and environmental damage aimed at those who constructed the Olympic Village - although these have done nothing to improve the event’s image. The main shadow hanging over Russia’s games is the threat of boycotts by fans, athletes and heads of state appalled by anti-gay laws passed by its government. Here are some of the key questions about those laws and their possible impact on the Sochi Games:

What are the anti-gay laws exactly?

The statute, which was signed into law by President Putin on 29 July, criminalises public support for non-traditional relationships, says Yahoo News. Its full name is "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations among minors". Russian lawmakers insist it doesn’t criminalise homosexuality, but merely stops the dissemination of gay "propaganda" among those under 18. That hasn’t convinced gay and liberal activists who see it as a "new, dark chapter in the history of gay rights in Russia," says PolicyMic.

So what is gay ‘propaganda’ exactly?

The Russian law defines propaganda as the act of distributing information to minors that encourages non-traditional sexual attitudes. It can also be construed as making non-traditional sexual relations look attractive or "equating the social value" of traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.

What are the penalties for those who break the law?

There are different penalties for Russians and foreigners. Russian citizens found guilty of spreading propaganda can be fined up to 5,000 roubles (about $150), while Russian public officials can be hit with fines of up to 50,000 roubles ($1,500). For registered organizations, such as gay rights groups, the fine can be as high as 1 million roubles ($30,000). The penalties are considerably higher if the propaganda is disseminated on the internet

Foreigners caught spreading propaganda will be fined up to 5,000 roubles, face deportation from Russia, or up to 15 days in jail. If they use the internet to disseminate the information the fine jumps to a maximum of 100,000 roubles or a 15-day detention followed by deportation.

Is homosexuality outlawed in Russia?

No, it isn’t. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia liberalised some of its draconian anti-gay laws. Homosexual acts between consenting men were legalised on 27 May, 1993. But Russia would "still rather have its homosexual citizenry invisible - and silent," says Time. Russian police routinely deny permits for gay pride marches and those that do take place are often attacked. The European section of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, rates Russia as the "least protective country in Europe for LGBT citizens", ranking it 49th out of the 49 European countries rated in its annual survey.

Who has spoken out about the gay legislation?

Many high-profile people have decried the Russian law, often within the context of the Sochi Games. President Obama warned Russia that if it wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then "every judgment should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam, and people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it." At a concert in Moscow this month, Elton John told his audience he was "deeply saddened and shocked" by the law and described it as "inhumane and isolating".  Madonna and Lady Gaga have expressed similar sentiments at their Moscow shows, resulting in a "legal backlash and controversy", says Mother Jones. A $10 million lawsuit against Madonna was thrown out of court, while the promoters of Lady Gaga’s gig were fined a "symbolic" $614. It is not yet clear if Elton John will face censure.

What has President Putin said about all this?

With Russia’s reputation on the line, Putin has made concerted efforts to protect the image of the Games. In October, he promised that gay athletes wouldn't be persecuted by the country's strict anti-gay laws during the Winter Olympics. "We will do everything to make sure that athletes, fans and guests feel comfortable at the Olympic Games regardless of their ethnicity, race or sexual orientation," Putin told the BBC. "I would like to underline that".

Does the IOC anticipate protests by athletes?

Some high-ranking officials are clearly worried that the event will be politicised. They include IOC boss Thomas Bach who has warned athletes against making any kind of statement during the Games. "As an athlete, you do not want to be confronted with any kind of political controversies at the Games," he said. The former Olympian insisted he is trying to protect competitors from getting caught up in controversy. "I know from my own experience, this is key,'' said Bach, who won a team fencing gold medal for West Germany in 1976.

Who wants athletes and fans to boycott Sochi?

Plenty of gay activists want a boycott, but possibly the most high-profile person calling on fans and athletes to stay away is the comedian, actor and TV personality Stephen Fry. He has urged David Cameron to support moves to strip Russia of the 2014 Winter Olympics, comparing the decision to hold the games there with the decision to hold the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. President Putin "is making scapegoats of gay people", Fry said.

Is anyone refusing to attend Sochi because of the laws?

Yes, they are. German President Joachim Gauck is the highest profile statesman to announce he will not attend the Winter Olympics, although his office denies it’s a "boycott". Gauck, who was a Christian pastor and civil rights activist in former communist East Germany, has not made an official visit to Russia since he took office in 2012, Radio Free Europe reports.

For athletes – and gay athletes in particular – Sochi poses a dilemma. The Games take place every four years, so boycotting Sochi would have an enormous impact on an elite sportsperson’s career. New Zealand skater Blake Skjellerup is an openly gay athlete who says he will go to Sochi, but will tackle Russia’s anti-gay laws "head on". "I will express my feelings and emotions openly [in Sochi]," the 29-year-old told CNN. "I am not going to go back into the closet in any way. I am proud of who I am."

Sports presenter Clare Balding told the BBC’s Desert Island Discs programme that it is "important" that she goes to Sochi. "I will do so because I am a sports presenter who happens to be gay," Balding said. "I think the best way of enlightening societies that are not as open-minded as our own is not to be cowed into submission. I intend to stand proud, do my homework and do my job as well as I possibly can – as I would for any other sporting event."

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