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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Do or Die Time for the 2014 Sochi Olympics


Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll have noticed increasing noise over Russia’s violent anti-gay agenda is making its way to the highest levels of government.

As Russia prepares to host the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014, its recently adopted “gay propaganda” legislation doesn’t simply reflect badly on it as a host country, but genuinely threatens gay athletes, athletes that voice support for them, and any gay or pro-gay spectators.

If Jews were under attack in Russia, persecuted by the government for practicing their religion, attending synagogues, wearing yarmulkes, or engaging in anything that might be considered “Jewish propaganda,” do you think the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would still be holding the Games in Sochi in 2014?

How about NBC? Think they’d still be broadcasting it?

Boycotts can be tricky. However a recent history of boycotts relating to the Olympics is instructive here.

As a South African raised during the height of apartheid, I remember the cultural and economic boycotts. In the end, they had an impact, leaving South Africa isolated and alone.

On August 18th, 1964, a few months before I was born, South Africa was barred from competing in the 18th Olympic Games in Tokyo after they failed to reach an ultimatum that included condemning apartheid.

The International Olympic Committee, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, had originally withdrawn South Africa’s invitation to Japan based in part on the premise that South Africa’s discrimination in sport didn’t allow black and white athletes to compete.

Despite South Africa’s attempt to circumvent the ban by including seven non-white athletes (which under South Africa’s racial classification system could have included blacks, coloureds and Indians), the country’s stubborn refusal to publicly renounce racial discrimination in sport in newspapers and on the radio was enough to uphold the rescinded invitation.

Seemingly inept at discerning irony, South Africa angrily denounced IOC for injecting politics into sport, but it did little to stem the tide. In June of the same year, protests against South African policies had forced South African players to pull out of the Wimbledon Tennis championships in London, and further boycotts would follow.

South Africa was indefinitely suspended by FIFA, the world cup soccer organization in October 1964, and bans on rugby and cricket in the 1970s and 1980s were especially hard felt by sport-loving South Africans.

In September, 1967, a committee of the IOC visited South Africa to examine claims that South Africa’s Prime Minister, J.B. Vorster had relaxed sports policy to enable a truly merit-based, multiracial team for the next Olympic Games. The fawning committee’s report resulted in the IOC extending an invitation to South Africa to compete in the 1968 games in Mexico, but strong, vocal opposition by numerous African countries, who threatened to boycott themselves if South Africa was competing, forced the IOC to once again rescind its invitation.

In 1976, as many as 25 African countries pulled out of the Montreal Olympics to protest the inclusion of New Zealand, whose rugby team the All Blacks (who remain mostly white) was touring South Africa, although New Zealand was one of 26 countries to have played sport in South Africa during that year.

The boycotts that year resulted in world record holder in the 1500 m, Filbert Bayi from Tanzania, and John Akii-Bua of Uganda who held the, world record in the 400 m hurdles, failing to hold onto their titles. Kenya’s foreign minister at the time, James Osogo, announced: “The government and the people of Kenya hold the view that principles are more precious than medals.”

It wasn’t until the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, until the international community became convinced that South Africa was irrevocably on the road to political transformation and democracy, and was able to compete.

More recently, the IOC, along with other global sports bodies and institutions, has had to deal with discrimination that has revealed them to be less than even-handed in their understanding of human rights. The IOC banned the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan from competing in the Sydney Olympics in 2000, citing Afghanistan’s laws forbidding females from playing any sports ever.

Principles may have indeed been more precious to Kenyans than medals back in 1976, but the principles that once allowed the IOC to position itself as a moral guardian appear to have flown out the window. (Although China’s human rights record didn’t preclude them from hosting the Olympics in Beijing, suggesting IOC’s willingness to turn a blind eye to discrimination is hardly a new phenomenon.)

The legislation, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June provides jail terms for anyone wearing rainbow pins or clothing, waving a gay flag or simply holding hands with someone of the same sex. Presumably, pink triangles, like the ones homosexuals in Germany were forced to wear on their arms while being led into gas ovens are also no nos.

These aren’t just idle threats, as alarming videos and dramatic spikes in anti-gay violence in Russia reflect how the draconian laws, which criminalize vocal support for GLBT communities, are fueling homophobia in Russia. Last week, images of a Russian neo-Nazi group that was kidnapping gay teenagers, then assaulting and humiliating them on camera in a “anti-pedophilia campaign” made their rounds.

Despite having received calls to boycott, or relocate, the 2014 Winter Games, IOC has blatantly ignored the principle and has deemed “assurances” from the highest levels of Russian government an adequate response to actual threats to the safety of gay athletes, let alone their supporters.

Vitaly Milonov, the Russian lawmaker who co-sponsor of the ‘non-traditional relationships’ bill, has contradicted the IOC, warning that the government cannot decide when to selectively enforce the law. (A petition to ban Milonov and the other co-sponsor of the “gay propaganda” bill, Elena Mizulina, from receiving visas to enter the United States only has 7500 signatures as of this writing.)

Russia’s Sports Minister, Vitaly L. Mutko, also warned that Olympic athletes travelling to Russia would be expected to obey the new law.

Australia’s diving gold medalist in the Beijing Games, Matthew Mitcham told Australia’s Daily Telegraph that the Russian law was horrific. “The Olympics is the best experience you will ever have as an athlete,” he said. “Their whole memory and experience is going to be marred by this stuff. They are going to be made to feel unacceptable, inappropriate, and it is a really awful, awful feeling.”

But it’s not simply the feelings of gay athletes that warrants concern here. It’s their physical safety.

When did it become okay for a country hosting the Games to be able to get away with this kind of crap?

When did the IOC become such a frightened, greedy, insipid organization with no backbone, let alone moral virtue?

This is the same organization that banned South Africa from competing, not just from hosting, because of its racist policies. This is the same organization that banned Afghanistan because of its refusal to allow women to compete. Does Russia allow openly gay athletes to compete? Or are they too closeted to dare come out or already in jail?

Why the fuck the double standard?

Where are the countries who pulled out of the Olympics when New Zealand violated the sports ban by visiting South Africa?

Unfortunately we know that Uganda, whose “Kill the Gays” bill keeps threatening her citizens won’t be condemning Russia anytime soon. How about Kenya? When did medals become more precious than people for your citizens? Where’s the strength and courage of conviction you once showed the world?

Gay activists in the United States in New York, Los Angles and San Francisco have launched boycotts of Stoli Vodka, which haven’t fully caught on owing to questions as to the true origins of Stoli, the companies own issues with the Russian government and its frequent sponsorship of gay related causes. And while any attempt to draw attention to this issue is better than apathy, there needs to be a damn lot more than a Vodka boycott to shame those who have remained silent or plan to profit regardless of Russia’s belligerent commitment to hate, and the IOC’s pitiful, castrated shameful response.

NBC, who is televising the Olympics, is touting assurances by Igor Ananskikh, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s Physical Culture, Sport and Youth Policy Committee to Russian news agency Interfax: “The Olympic Games is a major international event. We need to be as polite and tolerant as possible. That is why a decision has been made not to raise this issue during the Olympics.”

Polite? Seriously?

In response to a rising chorus of voices decrying NBC’s involvement, including questions as to whether the controversial Russian law would be exposed during the Opening Ceremonies, NBC bravely committed to acknowledging it. Yep, acknowledging it. According to Variety, NBC Sports Chief, Mark Lazarus said, “If it is still their law and impacting any part of the Olympic games we will acknowledge it. We don’t believe in the spirit of the law that they have passed and are hopeful that the Olympic spirit will win out.”

Whether Mr. Lazarus would be as hopeful and accommodating to the host country if it was Jews that were being forbidden from “propagandizing” or could be jailed for wearing yarmulkes, is simply speculative. Perhaps we’ll see what moral backbone looks like when it comes to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022.

IOC presidential candidate Richard Carrion issued a statement Friday saying the IOC should use “all avenues possible” to keep athletes competing at the Olympics from being subject to the law passed in June.

“We should use all the avenues possible for influence and diplomacy with Russian officials, so that this legislation will not create a problem for our athletes,” he said. “I am confident that the discussions going on now with the Russian authorities will help clarify the extent of the law and will ensure that our athletes will be protected.”

“And, looking ahead, a condition to getting the Olympics games in the future should be to make sure the city does not have laws that discriminate against people in any way, consistent with the Olympic Charter.”

When exactly did this stop being a prerequisite?

Does Carrion not realize how pathetic this sounds? Looking ahead? Rings about as meaningful as President Obama’s decision to “look forward” rather than prosecute torture and war crimes done in America’s name during his predecessor’s administration. Nor sanction those who found ways to legally justify it.

This is a pivotal moment.

While it may seem on the surface that a gay agenda is focused exclusively on getting married and serving in the military, the real agenda is to be afforded the most basic of our rights, namely life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The lack of action by the IOC, and NBC’s tepid criticism and willingness to place profits over principle says absolutely everything.

While Nelson Mandela, the man who inspired the first constitution to specifically preclude discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, lies dying in a hospital in Pretoria, South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma is too busy tripping over himself to congratulate Robert Mugabe’s fraudulent victory to remember his country’s Olympic history, and do what’s right. We haven’t heard a peep about this from South Africa.

Unfortunately, the United States is so busy spying on its citizens, hunting down whistleblowers and targeting drone strikes that it would sooner do diplomatic battle with Russia over Edward Snowden than it would make a principled stand for Russia’s treatment of her gay citizens, let alone for gay American athletes or audiences.

Who are we? What have we become? At what point did we lose any kind of moral standing?

There was once a time when we used to at least pretend that we gave a shit morally.

I am puzzled and ashamed.

The fact that all that’s being done to demonstrate displeasure for Russia’s actions is limited to toothless letters to the Secretary of State, John Kerry, from members of congress and questionably relevant actions by well-meaning activists and opportunistic gay bar owners is mortifying.

Jen Kirkman, a comedian on Chelsea Handler’s talk show Chelsea Lately joked that a boycott on Stoli Vodka would last until gays realized they need Appletinis to watch Olympic figure skating. Sadly, she is spot on. But it isn’t particularly funny.

George Takei has wholeheartedly endorsed a movement to have the Games moved from Russia, and a petition to that effect is gaining momentum. In one of the first take-no-prisoners approaches I have seen to date, Takei warns NBC and the corporate sponsors of the Olympics to pay “close attention” and “get behind the ‘Move the Olympics’ movement now, while there is still time to do so.”

I support this effort, but propose going further, should the IOC fail to act. And NBC too.

I plan to dedicate myself to making sure that any brand affiliated with Sochi Games suffer the consequences. I will recruit Jews and Muslims and women and blacks and as many races, religions, creeds, nationalities and sexual orientations that I can to join this fight.

What are you willing to do? Because switching cocktail brands is not going to cut it this time.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this story before.

If we allow the IOC to turn a blind eye to this, and refuse to act now, we can’t expect them to do shit when vile, sexually confused, neurotic monsters like Vladimir Putin and the ilk he inspires start firing up the ovens.

Let the Boycotts Begin.


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