olympics

IOC Announces “Protest Zone” At Olympics, Critics Decry Lack Of Focus On Human Rights

“It tells you a lot about [IOC] President Bach and the IOC’s commitment to human rights that they believe this issue should be easily compartmentalized into a protest zone,” one LGBT advocate says.

A runner carries the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic torch along a bridge across Yenisei River. Ilya Naymushin / Reuters / Reuters

WASHINGTON — The International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday concerted efforts to control protests at the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, both from attendees at the games and from athletes themselves.

The moves reflect continued negative attention the games are receiving due to Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and other treatment of dissidents — actions that have led the German president and a European Union official to announce that they will not attend.

The IOC announced that there will be a “protest zone” during the Sochi Olympics and that it will be reminding athletes before the Olympics begin on Feb. 7, 2014, of the Olympics’ ban on “propaganda” at the games.

Human Rights Campaign Vice President Fred Sainz criticized the decision sharply in a statement to BuzzFeed.

“Given the Russian government’s history of strong-arm authoritarian tactics, the existence of a protest zone is ironically rich,” Sainz said. “Olympic athletes should be free to speak their minds about the heinous nature of these laws. You don’t stop being human when you become an Olympian.”

The announcements Tuesday followed the IOC’s first meeting under President Thomas Bach’s leadership, held in Lausanne, Switzerland.

According to the IOC:

The Executive Board also received news that, after discussions with the Organising Committee, the authorities plan to set up a protest zone in the city of Sochi.

Speaking after the meeting, President Bach welcomed the development and the fact that people will now have an opportunity to express their views and freely demonstrate their opinions in Sochi.

“It tells you a lot about President Bach and the IOC’s commitment to human rights that they believe this issue should be easily compartmentalized into a protest zone,” Sainz said. “The fact that these laws exist is an outrage. The fact that the IOC believes they should be the subject of a protest zone is an even bigger outrage.”

The IOC also relayed more — although still incomplete — information about how it would be enforcing Rule 50 of the IOC charter, which bans political propaganda at Olympic sites:

In the context of the Sochi Games, the Executive Board also discussed rules 40 and 50 of the Olympic Charter and the information that will be made available to athletes and National Olympic Committees about how those rules will be implemented. As with previous Games where similar guidelines were produced, the EB noted that the rules are put in place to protect athletes and the special atmosphere of the Olympic Village and venues.

Rule 40 relates to eligibility for the Olympics and has not been much discussed in the run-up to the games. Rule 50, however, has been a repeated topic of discussion in light of the questions about responses to Russia’s anti-LGBT laws and other human rights questions.

Under Rule 50, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.”

IOC spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment about what information was being given to athletes about the rule and how the rule — and potential violations of it — would be implemented. A U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman said he had no further information at this time beyond the information provided by the IOC.

Other LGBT advocates, who have been pushing for the IOC to speak out regarding its own nondiscrimination principles, described in “Principle 6” of the IOC Charter, found the focus on Rule 50 to be misplaced.

“If IOC President Thomas Bach truly cares about principles, he should speak out against the discriminatory Russian laws that clearly violate Principle 6 of the IOC’s Charter,” said Andre Banks, executive director of the advocacy group All Out.

Of the campaign in favor of action and discussion surrounding Principle 6, Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, noted, “The 34 Olympians who have joined our campaign feel it is their duty to uphold the Olympic Charter and act in the face of any form of discrimination. Equality is not about politics, it’s about principles.”

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