On January 29, 2014, The Varsity hosted a discussion at Hart House on the Sochi Olympics with Professors Brenda Cossman and Bruce Kidd. The conversation, which included questions and comments from U of T students, focused on the dilemma of how to interact with the Winter Olympics while appropriately addressing the LGBTIQ issues surrounding this year’s games.
The discussion was moderated by The Varsity’s Comment editor Alec Wilson.
Brenda Cossman: I just want to make one point, and I’m going to make it over and over again, which is: the Olympics are political. They are and always have been political. Those who say that they aren’t are denying the very nature and history of the Olympics. Its very basic principles are political.
Over and again, governments have used the Olympics… as a platform for their political stands. I would like to see us develop a more nuanced analysis that makes it possible to support athletes, to recognize how political the Olympics are, and then think about how to be an ally in light of both of those really important objectives. To at least start by moving beyond this boycott versus athletes dichotomy that doesn’t really get us anywhere.
Bruce Kidd: I’m a life-long follower of the Olympic movement, [a] participant in it… and my personal history reverberates with the debates that Brenda has just outlined. If there’s any doubt about [whether the Olympics are political], one should recall [that]… away from the glare of international attention, quiet diplomacy goes on, and when that diplomacy subsequently leads to breakthroughs, [the Olympics] boast about it.
Part of those politics has been ongoing struggle about who is to be included… One current of Olympic history has been this long struggle to get the official Olympic movement to walk the talk with respect to inclusive universalism.
I’m part of a Vancouver group that is officially lobbying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to protect LGBTIQ and their allies in Sochi, to revise Rule 6 of the Olympic Charter… to explicitly designate sexual orientation as one of the protections, and to specifically include in the rules… the enabling of pride houses — the institution that Vancouver initiated four years ago. I’m hopeful that this will be turned around, but if it’s only going to be turned around, we need to continue to push the IOC, the national Olympic committees, like the very timid Canadian Olympic committee (COC), and the sponsors to do the right thing.
Onus on the International Olympic Committee
What responsibility, if any, should fall on the International Olympic Committee and the rest of the international community to ensure that the games take place in a safe and accepting environment?
BK: I think the IOC has got to accept responsibility for this. I’m very disappointed that they have not done so already. Under the previous president, Jacques Rogge, there was a turn towards sport for sports sake, and away from a more ambitious human rights-focused agenda and I’m hoping that under the new president, Thomas Bach… there’ll be a return to a more human rights, politically-focused agenda. I know that there are a lot of people who are telling him to do that. I was at an IOC UN Conference in New York last June where the secretary-general, Ban Ki-Moon stood and told the candidates for the IOC presidency to get with the program and protect the rights of LGBTIQ. So this is a campaign that is underway, but if it’s going to be successful, many more people have to add their voices.
BC: I would just add that the IOC, in front of Sochi, has been unduly timid. They do have an absolute obligation to live up to Principle 6… The IOC has actually said that the principle does apply to discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, but they certainly haven’t written it in yet. The leadership of the IOC has tried to get a commitment from the host country that LGBT athletes won’t be arrested, and there are many different sounds that came out of Russia. The most recent statement seems to be that as long as the athletes abide by [Russian] laws, we won’t arrest them — which is somewhat tautological considering how regressive the laws are. I think the IOC has been working to try to make sure that the athletes are safe, without pushing the envelope very hard.
At the same time, they’ve been sending really strong messages that athletes who protest at the Olympics will be punished, so if they are in violation of the basic charter principle that there shall be no protest… then action will be taken to discipline these athletes. Personally, I think that they could be doing a lot more to uphold Principle 6, rather than threatening to come down on the heads of the athletes. I think the IOC could be a bit braver.
BK: For the longest time, that rule [rule 50, prohibiting political demonstrations] was interpreted… to prohibit the kind of demonstrations that we know as political demonstrations here. It was never intended to bar symbols of personal identification and representation. I hope wiser heads prevail. I keep on hearing of wonderful planned subversion activities by athletes in the opening ceremonies. I do know that if any disciplinary action is taken, there is a team of lawyers from legal aid clinics in five countries standing by to defend those athletes before the international court of arbitration for sport.
Canadian responses: “they could have done more”
What work is being done right now, on the ground, by the Canadian government or other Canadian institutions to ensure that LGBTIQ are safe in Sochi?
BC: Certainly the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird, has been… a very outspoken critic of Russia’s anti-gay laws and has been working quite hard to ensure the safety of Canadian athletes… and he has gone further than that. He’s been working hard to make sure that LGBT athletes are not going to be arrested during the games, but he’s also spoken out very strongly against Russia’s anti-gay laws. One quote: “This mean-spirited and hateful law will affect all Russians 365 days of the year, every day. It is an incitement of intolerance which breeds hate, and intolerance and hate breeds violence.”
By the same token, he’s doing more than the COC [Canadian Olympic Committee] has been doing. I think that we could have gone a little further as well in terms of the kind of leadership that the Canadian government might have had here. John Baird is very outspoken. Stephen Harper is not representing the government… Some of the representatives from Vancouver are going… one is a Pride House representative, and the other is an out… deputy mayor…. They are going to very openly try to advance both Pride House and LGBT rights.
I think that we could have gone a little further in terms of the leadership we have shown on who we send, who we don’t send… not unlike what the U.S. government did. When I heard what Obama did, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at just how brilliant I think his strategy was. I’m not going… but we’ve got all these gay athletes we’re going to send… It’s brilliant, and intended to piss off the Russians… we haven’t really done that exactly.
BK: I think they could have done more… the COC was visible in pride marches last summer, but then they say this is not the time, when it’s the issue that the world is looking at.
Making a statement
Sonia Liang, Student: I was just wondering that just like for example the United States has made a very clear statement with the delegation they’re sending; equally, who the Russians are appointing at the games is making a similar statement… for example, [one of] the mayor[s] of the Olympic Village, Svetlana Zhurova, after her statements… there was talk about the IOC maybe having her replaced as mayor of the Village. What do you think about the IOC’s actions on this front?
BK: There’s a long history of the IOC saying to a host nation — when the Olympic flag is over the Olympic city, it’s the laws of the Olympic charter that should prevail. That tradition goes back to the 1936 Olympics, when at the winter olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirschen… When the IOC arrived, the city was just covered in antisemitic posters, and the IOC president went to Hitler and said, ‘take them down’. And Hitler said, ‘Mr. President, when you go to somebody’s house, do you tell them how to decorate it?’ And Count Baillet-Latour said, ‘perhaps, Mr. Chancellor, but this is not any house, this is the Olympic house, and its our rules that prevail, and unless you take those pictures down, these games will not go ahead.’ And that’s what happened, and the IOC boasts about that in all of its documents about its contribution to human rights.
So, I agree with you, the IOC should say to the Russian government, we can’t really get you to change your laws but we can insist that the Olympic village and the Olympic city will be welcome to everybody, and that if this homophobic mayor is not removed in keeping with this long precedent, the games will not go ahead.
How to be an ally
How would you advise our guests on being an ally during the games? Considering that these conversations are taking place on the higher levels of government and the Olympic administration, what can the individuals here today do to make a difference?
BC: For one thing, people can just stop saying that the Olympics are not political, and argue with anybody who says the Olympics are not political. The bottom line is that you can support the athletes and you can condemn the Russian laws at the same time just refuse that completely unhelpful binary.
No, there’s not going to be a boycott. Yes, there are athletes going — but there are still ways to recognize that this is a deeply political Olympics, where this LGBTQ issue is just bubbling beneath the surface, and it is going to come out. For starters, educating folks around the political history of the Olympics is a good place to start to be an ally.
And then I think there’s a lot of creative ways to engage in protest. There’s the Principle 6 campaign. It was started by Athlete Ally in conjunction with American Apparel. The idea behind it is stand with the Olympians, urge the IOC to act, and they are urging the IOC to speak out against Russian laws. Walk around wearing a Principle 6 T-shirt and have people go: “Oh, what’s Principle 6?”
You can watch the Olympics wearing a Principle 6 T-shirt — it’s a way to increase education, to refuse the simple binaries. Refuse the folks who are saying… “when did this become the gay games?” It’s hard to know where to start with that. Say: “The Olympics are about inclusion and this is a moment where there’s a fight around the inclusion of LGBT folks, just as in the past there were fights around the inclusion of black folks, and of women.”
There’s questions around boycotting the sponsors. There was a lot of pressure on Coca-Cola to do something, and it didn’t. It caved in every way imaginable, and there’s been a lot of LGBT social media campaigns where students have organized to have the campus go coke-free during the Olympics.
There are all kinds of creative ways to think about engaging, online, offline, with people, that isn’t just about boycotting the Olympics or refusing to watch them. Get creative.
BK: My list is more traditional, and that is to lobby the decision-makers to do the right thing as soon as possible. The sponsors are a good place to start. I would lobby both the international sponsors, like Coca-Cola, but also the Canadian sponsors, like the Hudson’s Bay Company, to do the right thing.
Secondly, I would write the Canadian Olympic Committee, and ask them to support the campaign to revise the Olympic charter, and to revise the COC constitution to do the same thing. Thirdly, I would do something with the Russian consulate here and the Russian embassy in Ottawa.
I don’t see anything happening between now and these games. The IOC is locked in. But if the pressure continues to grow, and there are more and more and more varied voices, once the media dies down, there will be people that will try to forge a new policy. I don’t want to sound overly hopeful, but there’s a lot underway. I know that the Athletes Commission, which is the committee of the IOC made up of elected athletes, has already strongly recommended that the Rule 6 campaign be brought to a successful close.
Getting closer to home, wherever you are, continue to stand up for LGBTQ and allies, and call people on homophobia. We would be whistling in the dark if we thought that homophobia has vanished in Canada.
Support beyond the Olympics
Elizabeth Thomas (student, Sexual Diversity Studies): How do we support LGBTQ individuals in Russia beyond the Olympics? What happens once the international spotlight is gone?
BC: That’s, to me, why Sochi has been so important. This is a moment. Right now, the Olympics are the only game in town, and this is why it’s an incredible opportunity to put pressure on the Russian government. [It’s] a really difficult question, especially since some of them are leaving. They’re about to pass another law, which is going to take children away from LGBT folks. How do you continue to keep that in the spotlight? It’s a question about how you build coalitions in those countries to support folks in a way that doesn’t do more harm than good.
One of the things that’s really interesting in the LGBT politics in Russia is it’s one of the ways that Putin is throwing down his gauntlet and trying to get the support of the Russian Orthodox church, by taking a position that is anti-Western. That’s very much the case of the rise of anti-LGBT movements in a lot of Africa, is that it’s very much an anti-Western statement. So how do folks in the West support the folks who are battling an anti-Western movement? I think it’s a very complicated terrain, where the most we can do is try to take the lead on what the activists inside are asking for. This is the moment, this is the spotlight, but the law’s going to stay long after the TV cameras have moved on to greener pastures.
BK: It’s a real challenge. There is tremendous fear that there is a smoke screen for other oppression that the Russian government is carrying, so you have to pursue this issue with peripheral vision and understanding of those other issues. It’s important to keep the activism going — to ask the Canadian media to regularly report on what’s happening to LGBT and their allies in Russia after the games, to cover the Open Games — which is the new title for the LGBT games in Russia — and to contribute money. It’s very hard to see the future, and to know how to intervene at such a distance.
Concluding remarks: “It’s never too late”
BC: Bruce reminded me about the Hudson’s Bay Company, who designed the Canadian uniforms, and of course they couldn’t have designed a less gay uniform if they tried. If you take the HBC colours, all you had to do was add one more colour and you would have had a rainbow! You look at the uniform which the Germans have produced, which is effectively a kind of a rainbow, and it’s intentional.
I think we could put a little pressure — in some ways it’s too late, but it’s never too late for the sponsor to hear that they’ve missed their demographic. It’s never too late to hear that — so tell HBC that you’re pissed off at them.
BK: I want to focus on the long struggle and the next steps, but I don’t want to lose sight of Sochi because I think there’s so much underway. There will be some powerful activist moments, I’m sure. Nobody’s disclosing their hands, but I would be very surprised and disappointed if there aren’t subversive incidents every day of the games. Hopefully, those subversive incidents will be joyous — they’ll be celebratory, they’ll be with a great sense of humour — but I think that there will be instances of activism all during the games.
If the anti-apartheid struggle in sport is any indication, it’s also going to take a wider and wider circle, with louder and stronger voices putting pressure, and in all of the capacities that we represent here, we have to contribute to that and make sure that after these games, whatever the result, that we continue to act.
BC: And my own silly little form of protest: I’m not drinking any Diet Cokes all the way through Sochi. This is just me drawing my own personal silly line. And it’s just a way to kind of figure out your own ethical way to engage with this. Don’t just say, “I can’t do anything.”
Professor Brenda Cossman is a professor of law and the director of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at U of T.
Professor Bruce Kidd is the Warden of Hart House and a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education. He is a former member of U of T’s track and field team and was a member of the 1964 Canadian Summer Olympics team and an honorary member of the Canadian Olympic Committee.
This discussion has been edited for length and clarity.