LGBT Groups Prepare to Toe the Line of Protest at Sochi Olympics

World’s biggest sporting event is a stage for activists to raise awareness about anti-gay laws.

Athletes inspect the course during moguls practice at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014, in Sochi, Russia.

Athletes inspect the course during moguls practice at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on Wednesday in Sochi.

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When choosing the Russian resort town of Sochi to host the 2014 Winter Olympics, the International Olympic Committee couldn’t have anticipated the legislation Russia would pass targeting its lesbian, gay, bi and transgender citizens. That legislation bans the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations and has dominated the conversation in the lead up to the games. Likewise, human rights groups could not have foreseen when Sochi was chosen in 2007 that the 2014 Olympics, which open Friday, would also be a crucial stage for them to draw attention to a dire political situation they consider a human rights crisis.

“This is the point where the world’s attention is focused on Russia’s in a way that it hasn’t been before,” says Ross Murray, the direct of news at GLAAD. “This is the opportunity to capture global attention and shine a light on the horrendous conditions that people who are LGBT in Russia have been enduring.”

[READ: New Details Emerge of Threats to Olympians, Travelers in Sochi]

Activists at GLAAD and other groups have worked tirelessly to see not only that the LGBT community and their allies at the Olympics are safe while they're in Russia, but that the world be made aware of the discrimination they and their Russian counterparts now face. The laws, which also have diminished the rights of gay and lesbian parents to adopt children, have come with a wave of anti-gay hate crimes and activists fear it will only get worse. The question is, will their concerns be heard by the millions of viewers watching the Olympics?

Much of their efforts have focused on working with the athletes themselves, many of whom have already spoken out against the situation in Russia. However, the IOC and Russian officials have discouraged athletes from making any explicit statements about the laws while in Sochi, pointing to a clause in the Olympic charter that bans any political demonstrations in the areas surrounding the events. Just this week, the IOC president bashed political leaders – presumably President Obama and European politicians who are not attending the games –  for using the Olympics as “as a stage for political dissent or for trying to score points in internal or external political contests."

Thus activists have worked out a clever work-around by focusing their message on a statute in the charter known as Principle 6 which prohibits discrimination of any kind, a principle they say is being violated in Sochi.

“If you use the Olympic charter's own words and you’re saying those words, it’s hard to fathom getting in trouble for it,” says Sam Marchiano, the director of outreach for Athlete Ally, a group mobilizing  straight athletes to speak out in support of the LGBT community.

The emphasis is on a message that is “positive and affirming” and that “promotes these values of inclusion,”  Marchiano says. “Where athletes have to be careful is in getting too prescriptive,” and thus Athlete Ally, which is being represented in Sochi by its executive director Hudson Taylor, is urging athletes to talk about what they're for instead of what they're against.

[ALSO: Human Rights Group to Track NBC Coverage of Anti-Gay Laws]

Athlete Ally is working with other gay rights groups including All Out, GLAAD and Human Rights First on the Principle 6 campaign, and so far more than 50 Olympic athletes have signed on, 15 of whom are competing this month in Sochi. They have passed out hats, scarves and other gear bearing the number 6, and have encouraged athletes to find other ways to show their support for the campaign.

“Once we created the platform, people are running with. So I expect that we will see some really exciting expressions from the athletes during and after the games,” says All Out executive director Andre Banks.

For instance, openly gay Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, an outspoken critical of the Russian laws, has suggested that rather than do “anything crazy” (like wave a rainbow flag) that would get her in trouble with IOC officials, she will hold up six fingers when she is on camera.

“You never know what gets cut in the tape delay, you would hope that it wouldn’t,” Marchiano says.

Since the laws passed last summer, groups have been pressuring NBCUniversal – the American broadcaster of the Olympics– to mention the laws in their coverage, and not just in how they affect those specifically in Sochi for the games, as was first suggested by NBC execs.

“We do think it’s an essential part of the story,” Shawn Gaylord, an advocacy counsel for Human Rights First, said on a conference call with the media last week. “Not only does it have an impact on our own athletes, our own spectators who are going who may be LGBT or LGBT-supporting. These games are operating within the context of a country and this country has some serious human rights issues that really can’t be ignored.”

NBC Olympic correspondent Mary Carillo said during a Jan. 23 press call that none of the 11 feature segments she had filmed focused on the laws. However, according to Marchiano, a profile of Brockhoff had been filmed for where her advocacy for Principle 6 could come up.
NBC News has also hired David Remnick of The New Yorker to lend his commentary to the games, a moved hailed by those concerned about NBC’s ability to contextualize the laws, considering the ample reporting Remnick has done on Russia’s political situation.
"I think they want to have someone who has a familiarity with Russian politics and culture, various controversies, Vladimir Putin and all these questions I have stepped in for a very long time," Remnick told Sports Illustrated.

Jim Bell, the executive producer of NBC's Olympics coverage, has said NBC, which begins its official coverage Thursday, is "not there to poke a sharp stick in anybody's eye, but we're not going to shy away from reporting anything either," 

The Human Rights Campaign intends to hold NBC to that promise and will be tallying the amount of time NBC spends on the laws in its expected 1,500 hours of coverage and will post a daily report each of the 17 days that the games run.

[MORE: Putin May Resume Crackdown After Olympics]

In addition to working with athletes and the media, LGBT groups have been lobbying sponsors to speak out against the laws. HRC and 39 other human rights groups sent a letter to the IOC’s major corporate partners asking them to take a stand on the situation in Russia and to urge the IOC to address discrimination in Olympic host countries. Since the IOC said that they had received assurances from Russian officials the law wouldn’t affect the games (an assurance that has been put into question by the statements to the contrary made by some Russian authorities), the sponsors have appeared to have fallen in line with the IOC’s insistence that the games not be used to make a political statement. While some of the IOC sponsors have made statements in support of inclusion and human rights, none of them have referenced the specific criticisms being directed towards Russia.

However, sponsors of the U.S. Olympic Committee, first AT&T and then DeVry University and Chobani, condemned the laws directly in statements and blog posts published this week. “AT&T set the standard for what a big company can do and how powerful their voice can be on this issue,” Banks says. “In comparison the Olympic sponsors have been weak.”

All Out sponsored demonstrations Wednesday at McDonald's and other sponsors’ sites in 20 cities around the world to urge them to speak out on Russian laws. 

While the focus has been on this Olympics as it pertains to the political climate of the host country, activists say their plans extend beyond Feb. 23’s closing ceremony. For one they say they have built relationships with Russian LGBT groups that they intend on continuing to work with, particularly after the lights and cameras have left Sochi. Furthermore they say their efforts are about how the IOC, Olympic sponsors and athletes should look at the games in the future.

“It goes beyond just Russia,” Banks says. “The IOC and Olympic sponsors have a responsibility to deliver the Olympic Games, but they also have responsibility to deliver an Olympic Games in line with the Olympic values.”