Olympics will test Russia on issue of gay rights

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 September, 2013, 3:37am

Tolerance of homosexuality varies widely among nations, societies, cultures and religions. In Russia, where thinking is liberal on abortion and adultery, attitudes to gays and lesbians are as they were in the West decades ago. The International Olympic Committee was aware of that when it awarded Russia the 2014 Winter Games, despite a new law violating one of the fundamental principles of the Olympic charter. Threats of boycotts and protests by athletes and governments have made plain to Russian officials that they have to take the lead in reshaping opinion.

The law, signed by president Vladimir Putin in June, targets "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" among minors . Public expressions of homosexual love, media reports as well as information distributed by gay and lesbian groups could be viewed as harmful to children and, therefore, illegal. Responding to concerns from the IOC, deputy prime minister Dmitry Kozak pledged that the Olympic charter would be strictly adhered to and that athletes and spectators would not be affected. What happens during the Sochi games next February is not the point, though. It is that persecution of a person based on who they are is unacceptable.

Russia's laws on homosexuality were changed in 1993 to reflect international standards. Before then, it was illegal to be gay. The sixth principle of Olympism puts what is expected succinctly: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement." A poor example set by Putin's government means that outdated attitudes persist in Russian society, even though they were long ago outlawed.

Violations of the new law mean fines for Russians and deportation for foreigners. The games will test the government's promise, but will also further highlight Russia's backwardness. Scrapping the legislation is the best way to ensure that sports remain the centre of attention.