A new Russian law banning "the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" is raising hackles around the world amid hopes that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi could turn into a massive protest against homophobia.
The law is meant to protect "our children whose psyches have not formed from the propaganda of drug use, drunkeness and nontraditional sexual relations," said Vitaly Mutko, chairman of Russia's Olympic bid committee, on Aug. 18. "It is law striving to protect rights of children -- and not intended to deprive anybody of their private life."
He went on to say that the controversy over the recently passed law is nothing more than "an invented problem" in Western media, adding "We don't have a law to ban non-traditional sexual relations."
Mutko was quick to proclaim the freedoms of those who come to compete in, or cheer on those competing in, the Olympics "will be absolutely protected."
And in his own ingeniously disingenuous way, the thug who rules Russia, Vladimir Putin said: "The law does not in any way infringe on the rights of sexual minorities. They are full-fledged members of our society and are not being discriminated against in any way."
Tell that to the protesters who were beaten up outside the State Duma earlier this year as police officers stood by and watched. And this year, at least two people in Russia have been killed for just being gay, one of the victims sodomized with beer bottles.
As the New York Times noted, being openly gay, or even being suspected of being gay, is dangerous in Russia.
"Despite the breathtaking wealth and vibrant culture in the metropolises of Moscow and St. Petersburg, Russia remains a country where discrimination and even violence against gay people are widely tolerated."
The law that is raising ire around the world details heavy penalties for those convicted of promoting homosexuality to anyone under 18. It's unclear what exactly promotion of homosexuality is under the law and the International Olympic Committee has asked for clarification, but as of yet has not received a satisfactory response.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, told the Washington Post "The way it is so broadly written, any show of support for LGBT people can be criminalized. That could be holding a rainbow flag or saying, ‘I support my gay teammates.' Especially for gay people themselves, this is a huge gray area."
Alexander Zhukov, head of Russia's National Olympic Committee, says gay athletes are welcome to compete in the Games "without any fear for their safety whatsoever" as long as they do not "put across views in the presence of children."
"It is far from clear what that means," noted the Boston Globe. "Positive comments about gays during interviews appear to be illegal now in Russia. But what about an athlete's affectionate shout-out to a same-sex partner? Moreover, the law provides encouragement to ultranationalist groups that taunt and beat gays in Russia with impunity. Police stood aside as thugs beat up gay activists who had staged a ‘kissing protest' outside the Kremlin to object to the new law. Then police detained the gay activists."
The IOC has warned that the Games are no place for political protests, and, as the Globe noted, "A boycott by athletes would squander an important chance to showcase the skills and dignity of gay athletes, just as Jesse Owens's gold medal victories at the 1936 Olympics in Germany made a mockery of Hitler's notion of a master race."
So what should athletes do at the Winter Olympics? Just compete and keep their mouths shut?
We would agree with kayaker Scott Parsons, who told the Washington Post, "I think the athletes have a platform they should use as long as it's respectful and nonviolent."
And last week, athletes at the world track and field championship in Moscow might have indicated what Russia is in store for come the February Olympics, and the IOC be damned.
Two Swedish athletes painted rainbows on their fingernails and were quickly reprimanded by the International Amateur Athletic Federation for making a political statement during competition.
Two Russian runners of the victorious 4x400-meter women's relay team kissed atop the medal podium. While neither have released a statement, speculation on social media pointed to an act of protest.
American Nick Symmonds dedicated his silver medal in the 800 meters to "my gay and lesbian friends back home."
And two professional hockey players from the NHL, who will probably be competing in the Winter Olympics, also voiced their displeasure with the law.
"I think everyone should be able to be themselves," said Henrik Zetterberg, a member of the Detroit Red Wings. "It's unbelievable that it can be this way in this time, especially in a big country like Russia."
There is power in a unified voice and the Winter Olympics is a perfect time for those who believe in the dignity of all human beings to stand up and be counted. We wonder how the IOC and the Russian legal system would react if each and every athlete competing in Sochi was to paint rainbows on his or her fingernails or give their fellow athletes a smooch on the podium.
While it takes a certain amount of courage to stand strong in the face of hatred and intolerance, we would think athletes who make it to the top tiers of their sports know about adversity and how best to overcome it. We hope they display their best at Sochi, athletically and morally.