When sport meets politics: blurred lines

Protest-7I’M NOT A BIG FAN OF ARTICLES that start with a big claim just to grab the reader’s attention. That being said, I’m going to throw caution to the wind and say that this really has been a massive fortnight for gay athletes.

The Sochi Olympics has got underway with a, much publicised, backdrop of protest against the stance of Russia towards the LGBT community. Last week also saw the highest profile cases of current and future professional athletes ‘coming out’. First England women’s football captain Sarah Stoney, closely followed by NFL draft prospect, Michael Sam.

Last Friday, the 7th of February to be precise, Aber students united in a show of solidarity with those members of the LGBT community whose rights are suppressed in Russia and around the world. The protests made for a lovely image and was a necessary and well thought out gesture to vulnerable individuals around the world, but is it right to combine a critique of the state of the world with sports? And should sporting authorities have a responsibility to assess human rights in the countries that they hold their tournaments in?

First let’s be clear on the specifics. The Aber protest was held in response to the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics that is currently being held in Sochi in Russia. Homosexuality of all kinds is legal in Russia, however homophobic attitudes still persist in around 75% of Russians and hate crimes aimed at allegedly homosexual men and women are common. The government caused controversy last year when they passed a bill which makes it a criminal act to ‘promote’ homosexuality to anyone under the age of 18. In practice, this means that it is a crime to suggest to a child that homosexuality is acceptable or safe.

The passing of this bill has led LGBT rights activists around the world to criticise the decision to hold a Winter Olympics in the country, as well as a FIFA World Cup in 2018. But is it the responsibility of sport to uphold these moral principles?

When British athlete Tom Daley ‘came out’ as bisexual in December last year, the attitude of many was ‘why should I care?’ This attitude has been echoed in recent weeks as England women’s football captain Casey Stoney has gone public with her sexuality, she has been in a happy relationship with another woman for many years, and NFL draft prospect Michael Sam has confirmed that he will probably become the first homosexual athlete to be active in the NFL.

This is a healthy attitude to have. When it comes to athletes or sports men and women it is their sporting achievements that the public should judge them on and not their personal lives. Their personal lives are just as newsworthy as yours or mine, that is to say, not very newsworthy. People may be interested in their relationships but if we want to remove the stigma surrounding homosexuality in sport, then the most useful thing we can do is shrug and move on as if nothing has changed.

This suggests that sport is separate from politics and law and that there need not be any responsibility on the part of sporting bodies and athletes, however, this may not always be the case.

It could be argued that, even if you don’t agree with Russia’s laws on ‘homosexual propaganda’ it is perfectly possible for gay men and women to compete in and attend a Winter Olympics without any hindrance to their personal lives. Sure, they can’t spread the message of homosexuality openly to the under 18 age group without breaking the law, but is this really something that many athletes or sports fans would want to do when attending a sports event? I would suggest not.

The issue becomes more problematic, however, when we look further into the future to the decision by FIFA to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. The Middle Eastern country takes its legislation, in part, from Islamic law and homosexual sex between consenting men is illegal and punishable by up to five years in prison. This presents obvious problems to gay men who were planning on either competing in the competition or even just visiting the country. They will not be allowed to act as themselves and this risks blocking off a huge swathe of fans from the competition. This is a problem for the governing bodies of sports but does not necessarily mean they have a responsibility to defend the rights of people. They are, after all, sports governing bodies rather than political entities.

When it comes to Sochi it is impossible for the IOC to make a decision based on ethics. For all the protests and people who disagree with the placement of the games there are probably few who would take exception to a decision to gift an Olympic games to the USA. This despite the fact that eight separate states in the US have laws almost identical to the Russian laws regarding the distribution of ‘gay propaganda’. Clearly, the lines are not clear cut, they are open to interpretation. I don’t blame the IOC, or any other sporting body, for deciding that it is not their job to say who is right. After all, for them, it must be the sport which comes first.