The politics of neutrality in the Olympics

A new development around the issue of the Sochi Winter Olympics has made me feel obliged to provide a followup note to the one I wrote last week. Specifically, an article released recently by Huffington Post makes the bold assertion that the International Olympic Committee’s position may “Join Russia in Punishing Gay Athletes“. To unpack this properly, it is necessary to refer to a few salient points already covered in the original article, outlining the formal position of the IOC and Russia.

The question of whether the IOC can be considered punishing its queer athletes for protesting is a tricky one, and it really comes down to how you interpret the actions of the IOC. In order to highlight some of these issues I will play the devil’s advocate and advance a line of thinking that I believe the IOC is taking, which do not necessarily reflect my own. In essence, the IOC has stated that they are intending to remain neutral on this issue, or, as they describe it, apolitical.

I don’t agree with the position that the IOC’s stance is neutral, even if it is one constrained by its own governance and regulations, and not explicitly mandated by its principles.

The Position of the IOC

The increased visibility, public concern, and even international diplomatic pressure has prompted the IOC to repudiate these laws. Their principle formal action has been to solicit assurances from Russia that their athletes and visitors will be exempt from these laws. The response has been a little disconcerting, if not predictable. Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko and Russia’s Interior Ministry have both confirmed that they will be enforcing those laws upon athletes and visitors, during the Olympics Games at Sochi.

Perhaps this interaction might be described as insufficient on the parts of the IOC, and may even serve as the basis to actually boycott Sochi as the site of the Winter Olympics. Hosting either the Summer or Winter Olympics games a half-decade projects, and I suspect there is far to much momentum (economically and politically) to change the site of the games at the eleventh hour. A decision to relocate the games is actually less likely to occur at this stage of the organising than cancelling them all together. There are simply far too many vested commercial and sporting interests for those calls to achieve much change (unless some significant and formidable diplomatic event happened like a formal sanction by a series of major nation-states).

It can also be argued that the admissibility of the persecution of these minorities are in contravention of the fundamental principles of Olympianism…

It is possible to argue that there is a conflict between the basic human rights at play, the principles of Olympianism, and the manner in which the Russian laws criminalise LGBTI subjects (or rather the practice around them). It can also be argued that the admissibility of the persecution of these minorities are in contravention of the fundamental principles of Olympianism, including “Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example and respect for
universal fundamental ethical principles” (Rule 1), and “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” (Rule 2), and more importantly “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement” (Rule 5). Importantly, note the conspicuous absence of any mention to LGBTI minorities within that remit against discrimination, which is itself unsurprising. It simply reflects a contested position in international relations regarding whether to recognise sexual orientation and gender identity (the legal terms used internationally) under the rubrics of human rights and international law. Moreover, it is a subtle indication of a long and fraught modern history of LGBTI people within international sport and the inordinate normative pressure not to be visible or public.

First, consider the Olympic Charter, which contains the fundamental rules and by-laws of the Olympics and is the governing document that the IOC is beholden to. While they contain the governing rules for the National Organising Committee of a host city, they have no extra-legal powers over the sovereign laws of a host nation. Specifically, the Charter requires the IOC and National Committee to uphold the laws of the host nation as an event that exists subordinate to the nation’s regime. Finally, as far as the IOC is concerned, the competition is between individuals, not nations, and must make a separation between the athletes competing as part of their event, and the issue of individuals being subject to a nation-state. This is fundamental for an event like the Olympics to maintain and uphold a significant international presence that has credibility to as many nations as possible, which is dependent on the appearance of neutrality, particularly on potentially contentious issues.

So even though this described a conflict of interests between upholding the principled values of Olympianism and respecting the sovereign status of nation states, it is not without precedent. In 2012 the IOC assumed a rather conservative approach to responding to domestic issues, refusing to ban the entry of Saudi Arabia’s athletes into the 2012 Summer Olympics after Human Rights Watch outlined the prevention of that nation from permitting female athletes to participate. This is consistent with their position on the issue of Sochi, because Rule 50 of IOC’s charter prohibits any “… kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas,” and was affirmed by the IOC in stating that “the IOC has a clear rule laid out in the Olympic Charter (Rule 50) which states that the venues of the Olympic Games are not a place for proactive political or religious demonstration. This rule has been in place for many years and applied when necessary”.

Displays of Dissent

This brings the issue back to supporting visible protests that occur on the ground in Sochi; whether they come from locals, visiting athletes, or tourists. It is this scenario that interests me the most, because it contains so many graduations of uncertainty and legal ambiguity, particularly in light of the high number of extra-legal actions taken by Russian antagonists, combined with the absence of police response. It is around this issue that I think the IOC ceases to be neutral and starts to become political. If only because here the room for social, political, and legal interpretation is much more ambiguous and allows the IOC to take a more affirmative (or not) position on an issue.

There are several prominent LGBTI athletes stating that they will express their political dissent while in attendance, and the question remains how with the IOC (let alone Russia) respond to these acts, and which ones; also how will it respond to legal charges laid against its athletes. The most blatant potential protest is presented by New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup’s pledge to wear a rainbow pin, as well as Johnny Weir’s pledge to attend in similar fashion. Considering that the conduct and behaviour of athletes is governed by the rules and regulations of the Olympic Charter, which requires compliance with domestic laws, there is a potential double jeopardy for Olympic athletes that might include both criminalisation as well as possible Olympic disqualification.

Defining a Public Act

A significant part of this comes down to how Russia decides to construe the notion of propaganda, towards the various degrees of dissent expressed. On the matter of public demonstrations and protests on the streets, I am certain this would likely trigger a response from the Russian authorities, even if included Olympic tourists and visitors. This would be likely viewed as a disturbance of the peace and possibly even a security threat to the Olympic games. For an interesting and succinct dissection on the difference between what the laws say and their practice, I refer you to Kevin Child’s short article.

The crux of the laws is that they focus on propagandising non-traditional relationships towards children, but aren’t implicitly anti-homosexual. It is this absurd little loop-hole that gives Putin ability to claim that Russia does not actually have laws prohibiting same-sex activity but also gives a broad mandate of actions and symbols that their police force can respond to, namely public acts that are seen to promote non-traditional lifestyles.

There is a very thin line between visible queer athletes making public displays of (homosexual) affection being seen as normal, and the view that such behaviour presented as normal be considered as propagandising to minors.

A public speech-act has three broad categories, the first being any statement, written or spoken, that is put deliberately into the public domain; the second being the visible display in public of any sign (pictographic or gesticulated); and the third being the public propagation of information. All three categories broadly encompass some positive act that promotes or places an idea into the public sphere, with broadcast media being the most obvious example, but is also inclusive of any speech-act that could be recognised as being made public by the intentional accessibility to public attention, or is otherwise construed as being public by its form or format. There is a very thin line between visible queer athletes making public displays of (homosexual) affection being seen as normal, and the view that such behaviour presented as normal be considered as propagandising to minors.

As the American foreign office has positions a strong condemnation of Sochi, let us first consider their socio-legal paradigm on such matters. In the US, both culturally and legally, there is a strong tendency towards a notion of free speech that is absolute, albeit incompletely so; merely deeply entrenched politically and legally. Theirs is a distinction between between regulating the content of speech and regulating the deleterious effects of speech with harmful effects (defamation, intentional infliction of emotional duress, and incitement to violence/riot). The US has allowed limited restraints on the latter.

More generally, free speech can be more defined as the freedom of expression, including any public speech-act that presents a political statement (silent vigils, black armbands, or rainbow pins). In this context, freedom of speech is not merely a negative right (a right to prevent limitations on free speech), but the active protection of free speech by countering those social elements that seek to stifle expression. What we can see from this very limited discourse is that the type of speech-act that can be considered to be a type of propaganda can be very broad indeed, and given the increasing proliferation of the framing of this issue as being ‘homorealistic‘ I think there is a very real chance that Russia will begin to contextualise most forms of homosexual speech-acts under this rubric.

A Potentially Volatile Olympics

I think there is a potential for the Sochi Olympics, to set the stage for a rather incendiary spectacle. In particular, the Olympic village is an especially sexually charged environment, with many hypersexually active individuals at the peak of their physical fitness. There is likely to be a huge convergence of a number of incredibly politicised issues, including the significant cross-over between the pathologisation under public health and the criminalisation of sexual dissidents.

However, the presence of the Olympic Games over Sochi creates a very interesting set of issues under international law. The sheer presence of the Olympic Games inevitably causes an intensification of the international system onto Sochi, and probably gives greater credence to the space being subject to international norms beyond the scope usually assumed by signing conventions. The huge international pressure to avoid a diplomatic incident may be the principle force keeping the potential volatility contained.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with the position that the IOC’s stance is neutral, even if it is one constrained by its own governance and regulations, and not explicitly mandated by its principles. I think it reflects a tacit conservatism, largely bouyed by the incredible inertia the Olympic Games possess. My principle concern is the aftermath of the Olympics, as Sydney describes at least one city where increased police powers were put in place for the Summer Olympics, but then never rescinded. That increased powers may linger after the games, and the LGBTI may be its ultimate ‘beneficiary’.


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