Russia's Anti-Gay Laws Become a Part of the Olympic Narrative

Ahead of Sochi, NBC and LGBT groups grapple with Russia’s recent crackdown on the gay community.

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Widely criticized laws recently passed in Russia that target the LGBT community have gained the attention of U.S. media and scrutiny has turned to how they will affect the 2014 Winter Olympics, which will take place in Sochi in February. The International Olympic Committee gained "assurance" from Russia that the laws – which among other things, ban the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" – would not be applied to the athletes and those visiting for the games, but LGBT groups are still not satisfied.

Last week, Human Rights Campaign president Chad Griffin wrote a letter to NBCUniversal, which will be broadcasting the Olympics, questioning how the network planned on covering the laws. NBC Sports Chairman Mark Lazarus was forced to address the issue Saturday at the Television Critics Association press tour.

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"The IOC has addressed it with the Russian government and has assured athletes, fans and media that there won't be any issues," he told reporters. "We will address it if it becomes an issue. Right now, they have a law that is the law of their land, and governments across the world have different laws, but as long as it doesn't affect us or the athletes, we will again acknowledge that it exists, but I don't know what it's going to mean to us yet."

His response left some even more frustrated, with Lisa de Moraes at Deadline writing he "tried to split the baby and wound up butchering it." The Baltimore Sun's Michael Gold pointed out that "activists aren't calling for a boycott of the Olympics because Russia's laws will impact Olympic athletes and spectators, but because of what the law means for LGBT Russians."

While LGBT activists acknowledge that the IOC's assurance was a step forward as they look toward the games (though one Russian lawmaker is already questioning its legality), they say it also highlights the problem with the laws in the first place, with HRC's Vice President of Communications Fred Sainz describing it as the "height of irony."

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"What about the people who live there? Do we forget about them?" he says, calling the IOC assurance, "a tacit admission that there's something wrong with these laws."

As others have argued whether the laws ultimately affect those in Russia for the games, they deserve attention in Olympic coverage, Sainz says.

"It's a wonderful opportunity to showcase the beauty and warmth of the country that hosts the Olympics and we have every reason to believe that NBC's coverage will be just that," Sainz says. "So that history is recorded accurately, there needs to be a very balanced insertion of these heinous laws that are perpetrated against LGBT Russians as well as visitors."

Other groups plan to use a grassroots approach in raising awareness about the laws, but will refrain from calling for a boycott of the games (though activists have called for boycotts on other Russian products).

"It hurt the athletes more than anyone else," says Hudson Taylor, founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, which mobilizes straight athletes to speak out in support of the LGBT community.

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"We don't want people to sit out. We want people to speak out," he says. Taylor's group is planning on organizing LGBT athletes, fans and their straight allies to take on a "visible and vocal" presence at the games.

"If we do our part as consumers and fans the larger institutions will have no choice but to respond to that action," Taylor says.

This is not the first time human rights concerns have been brought up at an Olympic Games. Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, protestors raised concerns about China's record on Tibet and other humanitarian issues. NBC's coverage included Bob Costas grilling then-president George W. Bush about the host country's human rights record.

Nevertheless, activists see this as a different situation than in years past, in both the severity of the laws (which, in fairness, the IOC – or NBC for that matter – could not have foreseen when Sochi was chosen in 2007) and how all-encompassing Olympic coverage has become. They hope that the media at large uses the Olympics to examine Russia's crackdown.