John M. Becker

To the IOC, Some 'Propaganda' is Worse Than Others

Filed By John M. Becker | August 16, 2013 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: athlete allies, double standard, Ethiopia, homophobia in sports, hypocrisy, International Olympic Committee, IOC, Islam, Meseret Defar, Olympics, Olympics 2014, Orthodox Christianity, pro-equality athletes, pro-LGBT athletes, Saudi Arabia, Sochi, Sochi Olympics, Wojdan Shaherkani

Last week I wrote that instead of punishing Russia for its draconian crackdown on the human rights of LGBT people, the International Olympic Committee may decide to punish pro-equality athletes who make public declarations of support for the LGBT community at the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi.

This week, the Russian Interior Ministry -- which controls the police force -- confirmed that Russia's new law banning so-called "gay propaganda" will be enforced during the Games, despite earlier reports to the contrary. And the IOC told Gay Star News that, just as I and others suspected, pro-equality athletes may be disciplined for violating Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits "demonstration[s] or political, religious, or racial propaganda" in any Olympic sites, venues, or areas.

In my column, I wondered why the IOC views human rights advocacy as a "political statement," and whether they enforced Rule 50 consistently or only when LGBT rights entered into the equation.

After a little digging, it seems as though the truth lies closer to the latter option, and that Rule 50 is selectively enforced at best.

defar_gettyimages.jpgConsider the example of Ethiopian distance runner Meseret Defar. Ms. Defar competed in the 5000-meter race in the 2012 London Games, sprinting her way to a gold-medal win. After she crossed the finish line, a visibly emotional Defar pulled a picture of the Virgin Mary out from inside her uniform, showed it to the cameras, and then put her face against it in a gesture of "deep prayer."

This public display of Ms. Defar's Orthodox Christian faith was a blatant violation of Rule 50's prohibition of religious demonstrations in an Olympic venue, yet she was not punished or sanctioned by the IOC in any way; her name is still listed on the official Olympics website as the winner of the race.

I wonder if the IOC would have responded similarly if instead of a religious icon, Ms. Defar had pulled out a rainbow flag?

The committee has also given similar latitude to athletes who practice Islam. The kingdom of Saudi Arabia has competed in the Summer Olympics since 1972, but it refused to send female athletes to the Games for 40 years. The IOC worked hard to persuade the country to send women to the 2012 London Olympics.

Saudi Arabia agreed, making history by sending two female athletes. But trouble arose when one of the two women, a judo fighter named Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shaherkani, refused to compete unless she was allowed to wear an Islamic headscarf, known as a hijab. Saudi Arabia threatened to pull her from competition unless her demands were met, despite the International Judo Federation's prohibition on the wearing of headgear in judo matches.

shaherkani.jpgBut the IOC and the IJF relented, approving a specially-designed hijab for Shaherkani's use and allowing her to publicly display her Islamic faith in an Olympic venue.

Would the IOC have bent over backwards to accommodate Shaherkani if instead of demanding to wear a hijab, she asked to wear an LGBT pride pin? Sadly, I very much doubt it.

Now am I suggesting that Shaherkani's hijab or Defar's picture of the Virgin Mary distracted other athletes, detracted from their performances, or tarnished the Olympic Games? Of course not. But what I am saying is that if these conspicuous displays of religiosity don't violate Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter, then there's no way in hell that wearing a rainbow flag pin, painting one's fingernails in rainbow colors, or holding hands with another athlete in support of LGBT equality can plausibly be viewed as a violation either.

As I've said before, if the IOC continues enforcing this flagrantly hypocritical double standard -- looking the other way when it comes to "religious propaganda" but punishing and silencing athletes who take a stand for LGBT equality under the guise of "political propaganda" -- it will be complicit in Russia's egregious human rights violations and send a message of tacit approval to other draconian anti-LGBT regimes all across the world.

I can't think of a greater perversion of the Olympic spirit.

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