Human rights issues pollute Olympic spirit: Column
On Friday, the world will come together to open the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Sochi, Russia — a celebration of hard work and fair play, social responsibility, and international friendship. Every two years, the Olympic Games bring the world together, regardless of political ideology, to compete in feats of endurance, strength and sportsmanship. The issues that often divide our world seem to be suspended or even temporarily disappear during the Olympics. And instead of focusing on our differences, we come together as a global community to focus on what we have in common and our shared appreciation for our athletes and the games.
Although some individuals or groups have threatened to use the Games as an opportunity to wreak violence, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) continues to organize the Games to promote peace through sport — diplomacy through friendly competition. In many ways, the IOC has been successful in its mission, as stated in the Olympic Charter, "to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind."
The Olympic Games are unparalleled in their ability to bring together people of diverse cultures and backgrounds, and to promote tolerance and acceptance of these differences. Fundamental Principle Six of the Olympic Charter explicitly prohibits "(a)ny form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise." This principle reflects the basic human right of equality before the law — the idea that everyone enjoys the same basic human rights free of discrimination.
An Olympic host country should reflect this principle of non-discrimination. Regrettably, the IOC failed to honor its basic tenets when it selected Russia. In addition to grave concerns about terrorist threats from extremists that present legitimate safety concerns for athletes, coaches, and spectators, there are questions about how the Russian government will conduct itself during the Olympics given the country's history of human rights abuses.
We are especially disturbed by discriminatory practices in the Russian Federation regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. Russia's recently enacted anti-"propaganda" law, prohibiting the promotion of "non-traditional sexual relations," specifically targets LGBT individuals and families. Since enactment of the law, Russia has seen a noticeable increase in both violence and discrimination against LGBT individuals. And under this law, our LGBT and allied athletes, coaches and spectators could face criminal prosecution by Russian authorities with the possibility of imprisonment. When we send our athletes to another country to compete at the world's most prestigious sports event, the last thing they should be worried about are attacks on who they are and who they love.
Sadly, human rights concerns are not novel when it comes to the Olympic Games. In 2008, China, the host country of the Summer Olympics, was widely criticized for egregious human rights violations, including its policies that suppressed free speech and its abuses of migrant construction workers who were pivotal to Beijing's infrastructure improvements for the Games. Oppressive and discriminatory practices in host countries betray the core values of the Olympics. All the athletes have dedicated their lives to preparing for competition at the pinnacle of their sport, have worked so hard and sacrificed so much, that they deserve to compete in a fair and safe environment, completely free from overt or subtle discrimination. And they deserve to be recognized for their efforts and their accomplishments.
The Olympics are meant to serve as a platform for fair competition regardless of race, religion, or politics. At least for these few short weeks, athletes are supposed to be judged on and valued for their hard work, skill, athleticism and artistry -- not who they love.
The IOC has a unique ability to continue advancing the cause of protecting human rights in all corners of the globe, as we have seen in its effort to further gender equality. The IOC Charter explicitly prohibits "any form of discrimination," but the Olympic Games will not be truly free from discrimination unless the IOC acknowledges and repudiates widespread oppression. The IOC has a responsibility to uphold the Olympic Charter by only taking actions that affirm ideals of non-discrimination and promotion of a peaceful society, and it is imperative that future host countries be selected only if they honor Fundamental Principle Number Six, which would celebrate the true spirit of the Olympic Games.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin is a Democrat from Wisconsin. Sen. Susan Collins is a Republican from Maine. Rep. David Cicilline is a Democrat from Rhode Island. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a Republican from Florida.