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Canadian Olympic Committee will not condemn Russia’s anti-gay laws

Protests continue as coalition of LGBT sports organizations calls for creation of Sochi Pride House

Pride House in Vancouver during the Olympics in 2010. Credit: pridehouse.ca
 
The executive director of the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) thinks it would be inappropriate for the organization to take a stand on Russia’s anti-gay laws.
 
Dimitri Soudas, who is Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former spokesperson, says he trusts the International Olympic Committee’s guarantees that Russian officials will not enforce the country's anti-gay laws during the Olympics.
 
“For a host country, the values that the Olympic Games bring are powerful and they are lasting,” Soudas says. “But for us as the national Olympic committee or the IOC, we don’t comment on legislation in other countries. That is the role of the government of Canada."
 
Soudas says he's "received assurances" from the IOC that Russian officials will not enforce the country's anti-gay laws. "The IOC has stated that it opposes in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardize the principle of sport as a human right to all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation. The Canadian Olympic Committee fully supports that.”
 
Despite these assurances, reports out of Russia claim that the authors of the anti-gay legislation have not agreed to a two-week moratorium and that police will continue to enforce the laws, even against athletes and tourists. One Russian sports minister says that while he welcomes gay athletes to participate in the Sochi Games, he warns they must obey the country's new laws banning “gay propaganda,” according to an Aug 1 report from Pink News. In Russia, “gay propaganda” is any public pro-gay speech or behaviour. “No one is banning a sportsman with a non-traditional sexual orientation from going to Sochi," said Vitaly Mutko. "But if he goes out onto the street and starts to make propaganda, then of course he will be brought to responsibility.”
 
Soudas says that so far there is no official position on whether athletes should speak out, display rainbow flags, make statements or wear rainbow pins on their uniforms.
 
“We take the safety of the entire Olympic community very seriously,” he says. “The safety of our team is our top priority. In preparation for the Games, our team, including myself, we have visited Sochi many times. We also work closely with the RCMP, the Sochi organizing committee, the Canadian government here in Ottawa. We do that to ensure the safety.”
 
But reassuring words from the IOC and officials like Soudas have done little to appease many in the queer community who remain outraged at Russia's crackdown on gay rights. Activists in Toronto will join an international day of protest Aug 3 when they march on the Russian consulate. A group in Vancouver is planning a kiss-in at the Russian consulate Aug 2. Montreal activists will march on the consulate Aug 13. Another group is planning to send a shipment of dildos to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, a boycott of Russian vodka continues to gain momentum. 
 
These activists have been joined by a coalition of international LGBT sports organizations, which is demanding that the IOC host a Pride House during the Sochi Games. The Russian government previously banned any Pride House at the Sochi Games. The group includes Gay Whistler, the European Gay and Lesbian Sports Federation, the Federation of Gay Games, Pride Sports UK and United for Equality in Sports and Entertainment, and others.
 
Pride Houses provided safe spaces for LGBT people and their allies at both the Vancouver and London Olympic games. New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup, who plans to wear a rainbow pin to Sochi, says that visiting the Pride House in Vancouver gave him the courage to come out and be a role model. 
 
Dean Nelson, the founder of Vancouver's Pride House, tells Xtra that everyone must feel safe and welcome at the Olympics and that the Pride House tradition should continue. “No government, no politicians, can be allowed to turn back the clock. We all must defend our athletes, coaches and trainers to ensure they are able to participate free from discrimination of any sort, including sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity," he says.
 
Mark Smith, one of the organizers of Toronto’s Aug 3 march and a member of the Pride Toronto board, has drafted a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird with the same demand. “We can’t abandon our LGBT brothers and sisters in Russia,” he says. “We also have to protect LGBT Canadians who are in Sochi for the Olympics. So I want to see every country host their own Pride House. The countries that believe gay rights are human rights have to step up.”
 
Soudas, who did not know the Russian government had banned a Pride House at Sochi, declined to comment on whether the Canadian team will establish one.
 
Russian Nikolai Alexeyev, head of the Moscow Pride organizing committee, is planning a Winter Pride march in Sochi city centre before the opening ceremonies. He tells Xtra that he fully supports any effort to defy the Russian Pride House ban. “We would accept the offer of any national house to host an event during the Olympics, which could include a photo exhibition of homophobia in Russia, [show] films about Prides in Russia, et cetera,” he says. “But for that, the national federations would need political will.”
 
Soudas says that playing sports is a basic human right and that he doesn't want to jeopardize athletes' right to compete against the best in the world. “Every individual, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation, has the right to play sports any time,” he says, noting that members of the COC marched in Pride parades across the country this summer for the first time.
 
“From our perspective, our main focus and priority remains the preparation and the performance of the athletes. They have been training and preparing for years.”
 
Richard Elliott, executive director of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, is also drafting a letter of demands to federal politicians, the COC and the IOC. He says Olympic officials seem to be allowing human rights to take a back seat to sports. Elliott says that calling the right to play in an athletic event a human right is a “perversion” of the concept of human rights, especially when real human rights and human lives are at stake.
 
He's calling for sustained public support for LGBT Russians from Canada’s delegation, the IOC, the Canadian government, corporate sponsors, media and other nations. “They should all be using the occasion of the Games to call attention to these human-rights abuses and concerns,” he says. “It would not be acceptable for a Canadian delegation to go to Sochi and do nothing concrete to show support for LGBT people under attack in Russia.”
 
But some gay athletes and allies — such as Patrick Burke at You Can Play and gay figure skater Johnny Weir — have spoken out against boycotts and criticized attempts to use the Olympics as a political stage.
 
They're mistaken, Elliott says, noting he thinks political issues should be part of the Olympics and it's wrong for the COC or athletes to think otherwise. “These assurances from the Russian government are dubious,” he says. “Telling us that for two weeks LGBT people won’t be attacked, or at least not the foreign ones, that is absolutely not good enough.
 
“It’s really sickening if gay people, including gay athletes, go to Sochi and say nothing about what’s happening and hide behind this notion that the Olympics is not a political event and a political opportunity. You are complicit in the hatred then. If you are in a privileged and relatively safe position and go to participate in this event and do nothing to speak out against the hatred and support the brave LGBT citizens in Russia fighting for their dignity, their rights, and to be free from violence and discrimination, it is a complete and utter abdication of ethical responsibility.”