Olympic athletes face tough challenges due to Russian anti-gay laws

We like to believe that we live in a perfect world, a utopia where no one commits crime and people do not discriminate based on religion, race or sex. Unfortunately, that reality does not exist and discrimination continues to pervade within our societies.

The Olympics are supposed to be a happy time in which athletes from all walks of life gather and compete for their country while the world watches. The excitement has been building for the upcoming 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. This important world event has been tainted, however, because the Russian government has passed a law banning gay propaganda.

The law itself bans the spread of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” amongst minors. This means that it is now illegal to promote LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights. The new law carries punishments including fines and jail time and, if you are a foreigner, deportation for acts such as providing minors with information about the LGBT community, publicly defending gay rights and holding gay pride parades.

In direct conflict with Russia’s new law is the Olympic Charter. It states that “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Based on the Charter, are gay athletes going to be safe and distraction-free while competing in the Games? Or despite that, will they still have to deal with discrimination and the ever present threat of having their identity and voice taken from them?

The news of this law passing shocked many people, including media and athletes preparing to head to Sochi in 2014 for the games. There were cries of outrage and even talk of a boycott of the games by some countries and athletes. There have been two Olympic boycotts in recent history. The first occurred in 1980 at the Summer Games being held in Moscow. The boycott was initiated by the United States to protest against the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. The second boycott happened four years later at the 1984 games held in Los Angeles. This was led by the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries. It was a direct follow up and response to the earlier American-led shunning of the games.

No one wants to live through another Olympic boycott. The Olympics are supposed to be a time when countries set aside their differences for a few weeks and get swept up in the joy of watching the athletes compete for medals, fame and national pride.

If you think about it, the most likely people to be in a bind are the gay athletes themselves. They have a very difficult choice to make. They can either attend the games quietly and focus on winning whatever sport they are competing in, or speak out and take a stand while risking persecution and the loss of focus in the biggest sporting moment of their career.

How are the athletes supposed to make a choice like that? For some the choice is an easy one. Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro, who recently competed in Moscow, painted her fingernails in rainbow colours to support gay athletes. She was asked to change the colours of her nails after, but not before the act had drawn significant attention to her and Russia’s new law.

Another instance is that of American distance runner, Nick Symmonds. He recently won a silver medal in Russia and in his post-winning speech he dedicated it to his gay and lesbian friends. By doing so, he became the first athlete to defy the new propaganda law on Russian soil.

I don’t think that athletes are going to go quietly into the games and abide by a law that takes away the freedom to be who they are. Case in point is another American, Johnny Weir. Weir is an openly gay figure skater who has said that he is willing to be arrested during the games. Blake Skjellerup, who is a 2010 Olympian from New Zealand, is going to wear a rainbow pin as he competes, despite the law not allowing it.

My take on all of this is simple. The new law Russia has enforced is discriminatory and takes away from the spirit of the games as well as the rights of the athletes to be who they are. I don’t think they should need to hide their identity and sit idly by as their voice is snatched from them.

In a perfect world, what I would like to see at the Opening Ceremonies are athletes from many or all the competing countries showing some kind of support for LGBT athletes. They are people too and deserve every right that is afforded to straight athletes. In 2014 the eyes of the world will be on Russia and the competing athletes. The stage is set to see how it all turns out.

Will oppression and discrimination win out, or will the athletes take a stand for what they believe? It is already happening. All we can do is wait and watch.

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