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.”
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.”