Close the Olympics anti-gay loophole

In the run-up to the Winter Games in Sochi, supporters of equality, including several outspoken members of Congress, pointed out that Russia’s antigay law violated Principle 6 of the Olympic charter, a provision that condemns discrimination “on grounds of race, religions, politics, gender, or otherwise.” But the clause contains a loophole that defenders of bigotry were able to exploit: it doesn’t explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Throughout 2014, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will draw up Agenda2020, a roadmap for the Olympic Movement during President Thomas Bach’s eight-year term. Dramatic changes are expected. As part of this sweeping effort, the IOC should amend Principle 6 to express explicit support for the human rights of all.

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Bach recently invited “stakeholders” and citizens all over the world to offer their input via email on what should be included in the roadmap. It will help inform the process that is scheduled to culminate in December 2014 at an IOC Extraordinary Session in Monte Carlo. In response to Bach’s invitation, 19 members of House of Representatives made sure that the U.S. government has a voice in this debate, sending Bach a letter that reads in part:

"The violation of basic human rights should never be a backdrop for athletic achievement nor overshadow the value of diversity that represents the very foundation of the Olympic Games. As members of the United States Congress, we ask you to make this commitment to the future of the Olympic Movement, in this way underscoring the unique power of sport in fostering global unity."

While the period for submitting statements recently came to a close,  the period for speaking out is only just beginning. The IOC has organized its discussion around five themes, one of which is “unity in diversity.” Although revising Principle 6 is not yet on Agenda2020’s scheduled agenda, supporters of equality could generate enough public support to put it there. Speaking to reporters in December, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said, "[Principle 6] is not something that is specifically looked at but if there is a groundswell of opinion it could be."

The Sochi Olympics demonstrated why the IOC needs to bring its charter into the 21st century. As part of Human Rights First’s team, I traveled to Sochi to spotlight Russia’s backslide on human rights and to support LGBT athletes and LGBT Russians. Repression hung over the games. While foreigners—even a gay person like me—were insulated from President Putin’s crackdown, the same can’t be said of LGBT activists like Anastasia Smirnova. The day after I met with her in her office, she was arrested with three others for taking photographs with a banner that said, “Discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Movement. Principle 6.”

Olympic Games afford host countries not just money and prestige, but an unparalleled PR vehicle. The IOC gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a chance to present his country as modern and sophisticated even as, out of the view of cameras, he was trampling on the rights of LGBT Russians. A clear endorsement of LGBT rights in the charter might have made him think twice before signing the antigay law in June.

A new and improved Principle 6 could have compelled the IOC to use its clout to take a stronger stand against Russia’s discriminatory law. Likewise, if it had a sufficiently inclusive charter, the IOC would be unlikely to award the Olympic Games to a country that persecutes LGBT people. The message of a broadened charter would be unmistakable: if you disrespect the rights and dignity of LGBT people, you cannot host the Olympics.

By including LGBT people on the list of groups worthy of human rights, the IOC would align itself with the positive changes occurring in many countries around the world. Yes, LGBT people around the globe are facing increased persecution, but that’s all the more reason for the IOC to come down squarely on the side of tolerance and freedom.

There’s no acceptable middle ground between hate and love, especially not for an organization that champions “the pursuit of excellence.”

Pichler is an openly gay athlete who was an Olympic Team Captain and diver in 1996 and 2000 Olympic Summer Games and member of the Human Rights First delegation to the Sochi Olympics.