Sochi 2014: The Real Reason the Olympics Are Caving to Russia's Anti-Gay Law


Last Sunday, Russia enlisted the help of the International Olympic Committee to launch a campaign against the worldwide criticism of the anti-gay laws in Russia. This campaign is a response to the tremendous backlash against the recent law banning homosexual propaganda. President Obama has openly criticized it. Many prominent athletes themselves have spoke out against the law, fearing that they will be under scrutiny while at the Olympics.

In the first week of launching the campaign against the "speculation" about the anti-gay laws, the I.O.C. has spoken out against the anti-gay backlash, claiming that activists have "misconstrued" the law. According to Dmitry Chernyshenko, the head of Sochi's organizing committee, "Russia does not ban homosexuality," and assured the American press that "Olympic athletes, fans, and media would not be subject to the law." Of course, this "reassurance" that they attained from the Russian government is vague and has been called "meaningless" by other Russian officials who claim everyone will be subject to the law. So, the I.O.C. is cracking down in other ways to ensure less drama — by forbidding any athlete to speak out or protest the law during the Olympics. If they do, they risk violating Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas."

Of course, an alliance with Russia, a nation currently legalizing intolerance, from a sporting organization dedicated to promoting the "understanding of all kinds of people" is terribly ironic. The motivations behind the International Olympic Committee decision to defend the anti-gay law is primarily to eliminate concerns that the law will cause sponsors to pull out before the Olympics even begin. Sponsors are worried about the fallout and subsequent profit losses if demonstrations do occur during the Sochi games. Because the games are now only seven months away, there is little discussion about actually relocating the winter Olympics. While it is possible, no one wants to lose the money that has already been poured into the construction of the infrastructure designed to support the games. This is a classic example of an organization that speaks in terms of ideals, but act in accordance to personal interest. It is this contradiction that also answers why, even with so many prominent leaders and sponsors openly condemning Russia's new law, no one seems willing to actually boycott the Olympics.

Why won't anyone actually pull out of the Olympics, despite the gay rights violation? The answer is simple: follow the money. While the Olympics requires a lot of economic investment for its preparation, the games have ultimately been profitable for some. The most famous athletes make large sums by signing endorsement deals with sponsors such as Gatorade, Gilette, Speedo, Ralph Lauren, and many more. Private security firms, hotels, construction companies, and airlines all make huge amounts of money thanks to the Olympics.

The IOC itself, although a non-profit, rakes in a huge chunk of change. During the London Summer Olympics in 2012, leading advertisers such as Visa, Proctor & Gamble, and Coca Cola paid the IOC $932 million for the worldwide right to market their products during the games. The United States Olympic Committee, another "not for profit" organization, receives 12.75% of the revenue earned from the $4.38 billion TV deal NBC struck with the IOC for the next few games, while also receiving 20% of those global sponsorship revenues. Therefore, both the USOC and the IOC have reason to stay in the Olympics, despite the apparent contradiction Russia's law poses to their mission statements.

No matter what the I.O.C. does to integrate what's best for their mission with what is best for their wallet, the possibility of protest in Russia during the Sochi games will remain unless the law is abandoned. American figure skater Johnny Weir has claimed he is not afraid to get arrested. Other LGBT athletes have promised to wear a LGBT pin at the games. If there are indeed demonstrations, will Russia resort to its usual tactics for civil disobedience?

Finally, if the IOC has agreed to support the Russian government in squelching anti-gay criticism, does that mean they will assist in providing private security like they have in the past, in addition to local and state police officials? How far will they go to stop the backlash and guarantee profits?