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Russia: Will gays be welcome at the Olympics?

Gay athletes who compete in next February’s Winter Olympics could be arrested.

Gay athletes who compete in next February’s Winter Olympics could be arrested, said Shaun Walker in The Independent (U.K.). The Games are to be held in the Black Sea port of Sochi in Russia, which has a new law banning homosexual “propaganda” around minors. The International Olympic Committee said that it had received assurances from the Russian government that gay athletes would not be targeted. But last week, Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko gave an “unequivocal rejection” to the idea of impunity. “An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi,” Mutko said. “But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course, he will be held accountable.” Police have been interpreting the vaguely worded law broadly, arresting people for holding signs calling for equal rights for gays. Russian gay activists are calling on Olympians to wear rainbow pins in protest. But given Mutko’s statement, “this could lead to mass arrests.”

Don’t be ridiculous, said Sergei Frolov in Trud (Russia). The law simply forbids people from “trying to persuade teenagers to enter into unconventional sexual relationships.” One would assume that “even gay athletes” would be coming to the Games “hoping to win medals, not recruits.” But of course this demonization of Russia was to be expected. Westerners are upset at “Russia slapping America in the face” by giving asylum to whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Their newspapers have been comparing President Vladimir Putin to Hitler, and Sochi to the 1936 Games in Berlin—as if a gay athlete were the equivalent of Jesse Owens. In reality, “this anti-Russian gay orgy has backfired.” Now, more people than ever before see Russia as “the last bastion of normal Christian morality.”

With this law, Russia has placed itself outside the world mainstream—and so has the International Olympic Committee, said Volker Kreisl in the Süddeutsche Zeitung (Germany). In a time when openly gay soccer players are being welcomed by fans in many countries, and even the pope says he can’t judge homosexuals, the Olympics are being held “in a land that persecutes gays.” The IOC is supposed to exist to promote tolerance and understanding among peoples, but don’t expect it to stand up for its principles. It already showed it was willing to knuckle under to an authoritarian regime in the 2008 Beijing Games, where even the press had only limited access to the Internet.

Canada, at least, has spoken out, said Celine Cooper in the Montreal Gazette. Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird called the Russian ban a “mean-spirited and hateful law” that “flies in the face of the entire Olympic spirit.” So how should athletes show solidarity with Russia’s beleaguered gays? Not by dumping vodka down the sewers, as some protesters suggest—Stolichnaya is made in Latvia, after all, and its Russian owner is no friend of Putin’s regime. Nor by an Olympic boycott, which only punishes the athletes. Instead, athletes and the press should do what Russian activists are asking of them: “Show up to lend support, legitimacy, and credibility to Russia’s LGBT community.”

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