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Rights + Justice

Why IOC Inaction on Putin's Podium Powertrip Doesn't Surprise

The Olympic committee isn't exactly a strong human rights advocate.

Bob Mackin 12 Aug

Bob Mackin is author of Red Mittens & Red Ink: The Vancouver Olympics ( and has covered two Summer Olympics and two Winter Olympics.

There can be no argument: the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics are Russian president Vladimir Putin's vanity project, intended to show-off the "New Russia," restore the nation to winter sports domination and reinforce his hold on power in the world's biggest country by land mass.

When International Olympic Committee (IOC) bigwigs have visited Russia to check-up on preparations, Putin has made an appearance. Host heads of state don't usually show so much interest in the IOC. In his 2007 speech to the IOC at its Guatemala City host city voting convention -- in English, no less -- Putin pledged Sochi 2014 would be a "safe, enjoyable and memorable experience" for athletes, journalists and spectators. Russia won by four votes over PyeongChang, South Korea.

But will the Games by the shores of the Black Sea really be so? Visitors to Russia may now think twice before doing something so innocent as wearing a T-shirt or lapel pin emblazoned with a rainbow, for fear that they'll be arrested for spreading homosexual propaganda.

Much at stake

The pressure is high. Russia has never hosted the Winter Games and wants to make the world forget about Moscow 1980, which was marred by the U.S.-led boycott over the Soviet-Afghan War. Russia wants to be seen as a strong, resource-heavy player in Europe, worthy of mention in the same sentence as the U.S. and China when the discussion turns to global geopolitical and economic influence.

Putin also wants to put Russia's worst post-Soviet Union Winter Olympics behind. Russia spent $196 million on its Vancouver 2010 effort and came home with just three gold, five silver and seven bronze medals. Russians were angry with excessive spending on the Games, such as sport minister Vitaly Mutko's 20-day, $30,000 Fairmont Hotel Vancouver room, which didn't include the $4,800 in breakfast vouchers.

With a price tag to build and operate Sochi 2014 estimated at $51 billion, Russian athletes are under immense pressure to top the medals table next February. Discriminatory Russian laws that contravene the recent acceptance of openly gay and lesbian athletes elsewhere in the world are another effort by Putin to intimidate non-Russian athletes.

One recent law bans so-called "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations."

It is an ugly, by-any-means-necessary strategy to give the home team the mental edge. But Putin's ploy could go astray if a Russian athlete, regardless of sexuality, bravely speaks out in Sochi. A gay or lesbian athlete could also scoop multiple medals and become the star of the Games.

There is a precedent: Berlin 1936 was supposed to be Adolf Hitler's showcase of white, German athletic superiority. The world fondly remembers how black American track and field athlete Jesse Owens took four gold medals back to the U.S.

Stick to the Enterprise, Mr. Sulu

Actor George Takei's endorsement of an online petition to move the Games to Vancouver raised the profile for the issue, but the proposal was never realistic.

Anyone who lived in Vancouver from 2003 onward remembers that the 2010 Games was not a simple, inexpensive task. The magnitude of the modern Games dictates a seven-year planning and production cycle that cannot be abruptly halted in one city and moved halfway around the world and restarted somewhere else, six months before the fixed competition and broadcast dates.

But if the IOC's funders flex thier muscle, some of whom are eager to expand in Russia, the pressure on Russia could be overwhelming.

The IOC's 11 global sponsors -- including Coca-Cola, Procter & Gamble and McDonald's -- pay $100 million each for their quadrennial deals and spend more than double their rights fees on advertising, promotion and hospitality events. NBC is the biggest single-source for the IOC, with a $4.38 billion contract for the 2014 to 2020 Games, and told its staff in a memo last week that Russia's law is "deeply troubling and diametrically opposed to everything that the Olympics symbolizes."

Ultimately, sponsor and broadcaster pressure could delay or quash the Russian law. None are willing to uproot and return to Vancouver at such an advanced stage; the costs and potential lawsuits would be too daunting. Neither do they want to be spending extra on lawyers to pay fines or spring workers from jail.

Cancellation is unlikely. The IOC paid a premium of more than $2.6 million to insure the 2010 Games against cancellation. The standard Host City Contract contemplates only major catastrophe, such as war or civil disorder, but allows the IOC an escape clause if there are reasonable grounds to believe participants' safety would be "seriously threatened or jeopardized." The Russian laws, so far, are only a threat to freedom of expression.

Nobody really knows what cancellation of a major event -- whether the Oscars, Super Bowl, FIFA World Cup or Olympics -- would cost hosts, organizers, broadcasters, sponsors or suppliers in dollars and reputation.

Denver was awarded the 1976 Winter Olympics in 1970, but voters there rejected increased funding two years later. The IOC moved those Games to Innsbruck, Austria, but that was before the Olympics were transformed into a global marketing machine with the guidance of the U.S. Olympic Committee and organizers of Los Angeles 1984.

IOC and human rights

The Olympic Charter, the de facto constitution of sport, states that the practice of sport is a human right "without discrimination of any kind" and any discrimination on the grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise "is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

IOC president Jacques Rogge, who will hand the reins to his successor in September at the IOC convention in Argentina, has pledged to seek clarity from Russian authorities on how the law would be applied during the Games.

The IOC is not known as a strong protector of human rights. It claimed it was doing the cause of human rights in China a favour by bringing the Games to Beijing in 2008, forcing the country to open its doors to more than 20,000 international reporters, editors, photographers and technicians.

When these groups arrived at the main press centre, they found the promised free access to the Internet wasn't so free. Websites about Tiananmen Square, Tibet and Taiwan were blocked. The IOC reminded China of the promise, but search engine warnings claiming that such sites were infected by viruses remained. In the years since the five-ring circus moved on and the world media went home, the Communist Party increased its hold. Artist Ai Weiwei, who was involved in the Bird's Nest stadium design, was later the subject of a high-profile arrest and jailing.

Five years after Beijing 2008, this is Amnesty International's summary of the country's lack of progress:

"The authorities maintained a stranglehold on political activists, human rights defenders and online activists, subjecting many to harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance. At least 130 people were detained or otherwise restricted to stifle criticism and prevent protests ahead of the leadership transition initiated at the 18th Chinese Communist Party Congress in November. Access to justice remained elusive for many, resulting in millions of people petitioning the government to complain of injustices and seek redress outside the formal legal system. Muslims, Buddhists and Christians, who practiced their religion outside officially sanctioned channels, and Falun Gong practitioners, were tortured, harassed, arbitrarily detained, imprisoned and faced other serious restrictions on their right to freedom of religion. Local governments continued to rely on land sales to fund stimulus projects that resulted in the forced eviction of thousands of people from their homes or land throughout the country. The authorities reported that they would further tighten the judicial process in death penalty cases; however thousands were executed."

At London 2012, the IOC was slammed for not mandating a moment of silence at the opening ceremony in memory of the 11 Israeli athletes killed 40 years earlier during the Munich 1972 Games after being held hostage by Palestinian terrorists.

International sports federations recognized by the IOC have not done enough to discipline athletes from certain Arab countries for sometimes boycotting boxing, wrestling, martial arts and swimming events featuring Israeli athletes. Iranian athletes, particularly, have claimed illness or fatigue for their withdrawal.

In 2009, B.C. Supreme Court found the IOC discriminated against women who wanted to ski jump at Vancouver 2010, but the Swiss-based organization was beyond reach of Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees gender equality. As such, the court ruled it could not order the Vancouver Organizing Committee to add a women's division because it was beholden to the IOC.

The law prohibiting anti-gay propaganda has received substantial international attention, but it is not the only situation that concerns international human rights advocates.

The latest Amnesty International annual report on Russia says the country's increasing peaceful political protests are being met with repression.

"New laws restricting the rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association were introduced. Human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers continued to face harassment, while investigations into violent attacks were ineffective," said the report.

"Torture and other ill-treatment remained widespread, and were seldom effectively prosecuted. Trials did not meet international standards of fairness, and the number of apparently politically motivated decisions grew. Insecurity and volatility in the North Caucasus persisted, and security operations launched in response were marred by systematic human rights violations with near-total impunity for the perpetrators."  [Tyee]

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