Column: Olympics beg the question of human rights

Should athletes trust Russia with their safety?

With the Sochi Winter Olympics days away, Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, have been thrown into the human rights spotlight.

Last June, Russia passed an anti-gay law that would ban “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” in any areas where it may be seen by a minor. This means that any type of gay pride event or any speech defending gay rights in public, in the media or on the Internet is subject to fines and even jail time for non-Russian citizens. When questioned about the law, Putin responded by saying, “this is not about imposing any kind of sanctions on homosexuality … this is about protecting children.”

Well if you ask me, showing children that being gay is not acceptable, and basically hiding the fact that people with different sexual orientations exist, sounds a whole lot like imposing ‘sanctions on homosexuality.’

Maybe even more shocking than the previous is Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov’s, statement to the BBC that there are currently no gay people living in the city of Sochi. However, according to Boris Nemtsov, a former Russian politician and an activist against the current Russian state, there are several gay bars in Sochi: a clear example that without gay people in the city, these establishments would not exist.

So then, what does all this information mean in regards to the Olympics? Well, according to Putin and the Russian Federation, gay athletes and visitors alike are completely welcome to attend, as long as they do not use the games to create any kind of political statement. In some recent remarks to Olympic volunteers, Putin said, “we don’t outlaw anything and don’t nab anyone…that’s why you can feel safe and free here, but please leave our children in peace.” Technically, what he’s saying here is true; in 1993, Russian legalized all same-sex relations, as long as they were done in private. Which basically means that it’s okay to be gay, just try to refrain from letting anyone know about it, especially kids.

With all of this being said, should gays attending and competing in the Olympics trust Putin with their rights and safety? History seems to disagree. Even before Russia passed the recent law banning gay propaganda, gay rights activists have suffered extreme human rights violations. In May of 2006, a gay rights forum, held in Moscow, and later named the first ever Moscow Pride, ended in riots and arrests after anti-gay and neo-Nazi protesters interrupted the march in a fit of violence. Similar events followed at Moscow Pride in 2007, as well as in years after that, when the police failed once again to protect the gay rights activists.

While safety at the games is a priority, it shouldn’t be the only thing that athletes and attendees, both gay and straight, should be concerned about. Many people, including President Obama, have decided to boycott the games because of human rights violations and the message of approval they fear would be sent to Russia with their attendance.

Only time will tell whether or not Russia will decide to protect these fundamental human rights over the next few weeks. But as we wait, we wait with knowing that the whole world, gay and straight from every nation and from every background, will be watching Russia’s every move as they take center stage for the 22nd Winter Olympic Games.

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