October 2, 2013 | by Michael K. Lavers
IOC faces renewed criticisms over Russia
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Republican Party, United States House of Representatives, Florida, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Council for Global Equality

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) speaks about Russia’s LGBT rights record during a Council for Global Equality reception at the Rayburn Building in D.C. on Sept. 30, 2013. (Photo courtesy of Gabriella Boffelli)

The International Olympic Committee has faced renewed criticism from LGBT activists over its apparent reluctance to challenge Russia’s gay rights record ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The Associated Press reported that IOC Coordination Commission Chair Jean-Claude Killy said during a Sept. 26 press conference in Sochi, Russia, the Olympic body is “fully satisfied” the Russian law that bans gay propaganda to minors does not violate the Olympic charter. An IOC spokesperson later sought to clarify Killy’s comments to the Washington Blade.

“That is clearly not expressing any view on the law itself,” the IOC said. “Mr. Killy made it abundantly clear that the IOC never comments on national legislation.”

The IOC added it will “continue to work to uphold the Olympic Charter, which allows all participants, from spectators to athletes, to attend the games regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation.” IOC President Thomas Bach reiterated this point on Sunday before the lighting of the Olympic flame in Greece.

“The Olympic Torch Relay will be a messenger for the Olympic values of excellence, friendship and respect without any form of discrimination,” he said.

The IOC has repeatedly said the Kremlin has assured them the gay propaganda ban will not affect athletes and others who plan to travel to Sochi, even though Russian officials have said the statute will apply to those who go to the games.

“The safety of millions of LGBT Russians and international travelers is at risk,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said in response to Killy’s comments. “And by all accounts the IOC has completely neglected its responsibility to Olympic athletes, sponsors and fans from around the world.”

Members of COC Nederland, a Dutch LGBT advocacy group, on Sept. 17 met with members of the National Olympic Committee of the Netherlands to discuss their concerns over the safety of LGBT athletes who will compete in Sochi and others who will travel to the games. They also requested a meeting with Dutch IOC member Camiel Eurlings to further discuss the aforementioned issues.

“This conclusion is unheard of,” COC Nederland President Tanja Ineke said in response to Killy’s comments. “The European Union, Council of Europe, United Nations and numerous governments have all clearly stated that this law is discriminatory and an infringement of the human rights of LGBT people. The IOC disregards these conclusions and instead chooses to be the accomplice of the homophobic Russian government.”

President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) are among those who have publicly criticized Russian President Vladimir Putin and his government’s LGBT rights record. Actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein, author Dan Savage, Cleve Jones and other gay activists have called for a boycott of the Sochi games and Russian vodka over the issue.

Olympic skier Bode Miller on Monday described the gay propaganda law as “embarrassing” as he spoke during the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit in Park City, Utah. USA Today reported figure skater Ashley Wagner also spoke out against the statute during the same event.

“I have such a firm stance on this that we should all have equal rights,” she said.

U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun in August told RIA Novosti, an online Russian newspaper, that American athletes should comply with the laws of the countries in which they compete. USOC spokesperson Patrick Sandusky later sought to clarify Blackmun’s comments by tweeting Russia’s gay propaganda law is “inconsistent with fundamental Olympic principles” and the American Olympic body has “shared our view with the IOC.”

Blackmun on Tuesday told reporters the USOC would support efforts to bolster anti-discrimination provisions within the Olympic charter

“We are not an advocacy organization or a human rights organization,” he said as Reuters reported. “What we can do is advocate for change within our group.”

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.,) who met with Russian LGBT advocate Igor Kochetkov and two other activists from Ukraine and Georgia last month, told the Blade earlier this week she feels the USOC has not done enough to challenge Russia’s gay rights record.

“The U.S. Olympic Committee has been complicit in this act of aggression because they say we respect Russia’s right to do this,” the Florida Republican said after she spoke at a Council for Global Equality reception on Capitol Hill. “That is not worthy of Olympic standards.

Ros-Lehtinen and gay California Congressman Mark Takano continue to seek additional signatories for a letter they plan to send to the USOC that asks it to explain the steps it plans to take to ensure the safety of American athletes who plan to compete in the Sochi games. She applauded both Obama and Kerry for publicly criticizing Putin over his government’s LGBT rights record, but she suggested to the Blade they can do more to respond to concerns over athletes and others who will travel to Russia for the games.

“It’s up to the U.S. to step up,” Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade.

The USOC did not respond to the Blade’s request for comment on Ros-Lehtinen’s criticisms.

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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