WASHINGTON — A key choice the International Olympic Committee will be facing in the coming months was painted all over Emma Green-Tregaro’s fingernails last week.
The Swedish high-jumper’s rainbow demand for LGBT rights in Russia brought to light an obscure question of interpretation that has emerged at the intersection of international athletic competition, human rights and self-expression. Exactly how similar protests play out at the planned Winter Olympics in Sochi will hinge on the way the IOC interprets Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter.
Athletes are already on edge about Russia’s ban on public speech or any other expression that “promotes” LGBT rights — called “non-traditional sexual relations” in the law. Green-Tregaro’s demonstration led Russian pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva to speak out in favor of the law, calling Green-Tregaro disrespectful, which then prompted American runner Nick Symmonds to decry Isinbayeva’s comments as out of touch.
Green-Tregaro repainted her nails within days, back to a more traditional red —because the Swedish team was informed that the high jumper was violating IAAF rules.
“We have been informally approached by the IAAF saying that this is by definition, a breach of the regulations. We have informed our athletes about this,” Anders Albertsson of the Swedish athletic federation told the AFP. “The code of conduct clearly states the rules do not allow any commercial or political statements during the competition.”
On top of the central question facing the Olympics — whether athletes and attendees at the Winter Olympics will be prosecuted for speaking out for LGBT rights and, more fundamentally, whether the games should be held in such a place — the International Olympic Committee is going to face similar questions as those faced by the IAAF this past week.
Like the IAAF, however, the IOC has a rule banning political propaganda at Olympic sites. The IOC also, however, has a rule mandating that it act to oppose any discrimination — a mandate that the IOC itself has said includes discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The attention the IAAF faced with Green-Tregaro’s simple act, with little of the publicity the Olympics gets, was just a sliver of the questions that inevitably are going to be raised if the Olympics go forward in Sochi with the anti-LGBT propaganda law in place. The IOC now finds itself under growing pressure to be clear, ahead of the games, about what its rules are and how it will enforce them.
THE OLYMPIC CHARTER: Rule 50 of the charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The rule also bans “advertising or other publicity.”
The question has been raised whether such “rainbow displays” would violate the rule, with some media reporting that the IOC has “forbid” such displays.
In a discussion with Gay Star News, an IOC spokeswoman said 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.” She added, however, “In any case, the IOC would treat each case individually and take a sensible approach depending on what was said or done.”
Gay Star News went on to editorialize, “The message is clear, athletes, coaches and others who step out of line – for example by wearing rainbow pins – would not just risk arrest from Russians, but also punishment from the IOC.” This led The Advocate to declare in a news article that the IOC “Forbids Athletes to Speak Against Russian Antigay Laws.”
The bylaws to Rule 50 show that its primary focus is the advertising element, with only two even marginally applying to the “propaganda” rule. The one states, “No form of publicity or propaganda, commercial or otherwise, may appear on persons, on sportswear, accessories or, more generally, on any article of clothing or equipment whatsoever worn or used by the athletes or other participants in the Olympic Games ….”
The other applicable bylaw notes that “all participants and all other persons accredited at the Olympic Games and all other persons or parties concerned shall comply with the manuals, guides, or guidelines, and all other instructions of the IOC Executive Board, in respect of all matters subject to Rule 50 ….”
The Washington Blade followed up, seeking additional information from the IOC about the rule, resulting in an IOC statement that claimed Rule 50 “aims to separate sport from politics” and drew attention to the first of those bylaws as the applicable rule.
“By its nature, the Olympic games cannot become a platform for any kind of demonstration and the IOC will not accept any proactive gesture that could harm their spirit and jeopardize their future,” the statement continued.
However, Rule 2 of the Olympic Charter has not been a part of the IOC statements or news stories addressing the issue thus far.
“The mission of the IOC is to promote Olympism throughout the world and to lead the Olympic Movement. The IOC’s role is … to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement,” part of Rule 2 states.
In regards to questions about the enforcement of Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law against athletes or attendees of the Sochi Olympics, the IOC’s statement included notice that, “The International Olympic Committee is clear that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation.” The IOC clearly views Russia’s anti-LGBT law as potentially affecting the Olympic movement, by its own statements.
Neither the IOC nor reports about the upcoming Olympics, however, have addressed the basic question of whether opposition to discrimination — an Olympic rule and part of the IOC’s role — should even be considered “political propaganda” subject to the confines of Rule 50.
THE OLYMPIC QUESTION: While the current statements from the International Olympic Committee focus on Rule 50’s ban of “political … propaganda” from Olympic sites, the IOC has yet to make clear to athletes and the world how Rule 2’s command that the IOC “act against any form of discrimination” plays into this discussion.
If “[t]he IOC’s role is to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement,” as declared in Rule 2, the IOC needs to make clear how it could view an effort to advance Rule 2 as a violation of Rule 50.
In other words, the IOC needs to explain how efforts to oppose discrimination principles — efforts that aim to make clear, as the IOC has stated, “that sport is a human right and should be available to all regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation” — can even be seen as being covered by, let alone violating, violating Rule 50.
The International Olympic Committee has not responded to BuzzFeed’s request for answers to these questions.
Finally, as the clock ticks down toward the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, the IOC finds itself reflecting, in its own policies, the vagueness of Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law.
Despite Russian officials’ attempt to minimize the focus of the Russian law as being aimed only at protecting children, early enforcement of the law has shown that its scope can be quite broad, pulling within its reach any activity supportive of LGBT rights when spoken in the public square or published online.
That vagueness, in fact, has led the IOC itself to seek clarification from the Russian government about the way the law could impact athletes and attendees of the games.
Outside of its broader mandate to protect athletes and attendees from discrimination while in Russia, however, the IOC has no obvious excuse to avoid being specific about what its response will be to public efforts at the games to draw attention to athletes and others’ opposition to discrimination. Continuing to state that it will “treat each case individually and take a sensible approach depending on what was said or done” does not give athletes and teams the ability to understand how the IOC views such proposed actions as Bruni’s suggestion to hold up rainbow flags at the opening ceremony.
Athletes — whether taking a cue from Bruni, Green-Tragaro or their own views — now need clarity not just from the Russian government, but also from the IOC, before the Olympic torch reaches Sochi.