The main fight over the 2014 Sochi Olympics seems to be whether a recent Russian law banning "propaganda" involving "non-traditional sexual relations" qualifies as a matter of politics or of practical safety. The International Olympic Committee categorically does not get involved in politics. It was specifically founded as a non-political oversight committee for the Olympic Games, which are by definition global. In a situation where it is impossible to avoid politics to any reasonable extent -- such as, for example, a world war -- the IOC cancels the games. There were no Olympics in 1916, 1940 and 1944, because we were all busy shelling the shit out of each other, and there was nowhere to hold them that someone would not have promptly shelled the shit out of as well.

The Committee will get involved in matters of human rights, but only if it pertains to the safety and security of the Olympic Games, the athletes, the support staff, and to a large extent, the spectators. Those who are calling for a boycott of the 2014 Olympics are using as their model the 1936 Summer Games held in Berlin. The Nazis had come into power in the interval between Berlin winning the right to host the games and the games themselves, and while Hitler was already trying to legislate the Jews literally to death, the world hadn't quite caught on yet, and thought he was more of an unpleasantly racist bastard than a potential mass-murderer. There was a lot of debate over whether Berlin should still be allowed to host, but it was sparked not by the local laws, but by Hitler deciding that he didn't want blacks and Jews to compete, i.e., he was trying to dictate Olympic stuff to the Olympic Committee. He did ultimately rescind this, but it had nothing to do with the IOC -- a huge number of participating countries threatened to boycott the Games if he went through with it, and Hitler was nothing if not publicity-savvy, so he gave it up. While the laws were contemptible, and I'm sure more than a few athletes had some unpleasant interactions with the locals, the safety of the games was not (then) in question, and they proceeded as scheduled.

This does not always work. A large number of countries threatened to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics, on the grounds that the host county -- the USSR -- needed to keep its grubby mitts off Afghanistan. The Soviets told them not to let the door hit them in the ass on their way out. The IOC pointed out that fighting in Afghanistan was unlikely to injure anyone competing in a stadium in Moscow, and that no one was compelled to send over an Olympic team if they didn't want to. The games went on as planned, albeit with a smaller pool of athletes than usual, and a number of teams either competing without official government backing or refusing to display their national flag during the procession and at the podium. This was ruled acceptably discreet and non-political, probably so that everyone would just shut up and get on with the sports already, and the organizers duly dug up a lot of Olympic flags for them to fly instead. The Soviets responded by calling their side to boycott the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles; most of them did. The 1988 games were hosted by the Canadians, who are so easy-going they keep letting Rob Ford be mayor of Toronto, and that more or less put an end to the squabbling.

The IOC has been known to concede on a few points if it will make the politics go away. The Olympic flags bit in 1980 was one of them; another, nicer one was in 1992, when the breakup of the USSR the previous year left a lot of athletes who would have been on the Soviet team stranded. They couldn't compete for Russia, because many of them were not technically Russian, but the geopolitical situation of wherever they were from wasn't anywhere near sorted by the time the games rolled around. This didn't seem fair to anybody, so the IOC declared that the entire mess of former Soviet states could send a Unified Team for that Olympiad while they got their paperwork straightened out. Currently, there's a tug-of-war over Taiwan. For various complicated historical reasons, Taiwan thinks that they are the Republic of China, the People's Republic of China thinks that they are the PRC's 23rd state, and the IOC thinks this has nothing to do with athletics, so Taiwan will be competing as Chinese Taipei under their very own custom Olympic banner.

Whether the recent Russian law is a human rights violation is not in question. There is actually an official group for evaluating this stuff, and they say that it is. It's a UN group and Russia is a UN signatory, so they're supposed to be listening to this. Assuming the law is enforced as written -- which is a big assumption, but we'll make it for now -- for Russian citizens, it's not really a direct matter of personal safety. Punishments outlined in the law are on the order of "owe the court shittons of money", not "be dragged away to a Siberian labor camp, where you will later die by firing squad in obscurity". I don't know enough about the Russian legal system to know what happens if you can't pay the exorbitant fines, but as-written it's a not a human rights violation for murder-type reasons, it's a violation for ideological reasons. Depriving people of the ability to discuss things in a civil fashion among themselves, or to bring them to the attention of the wider society, is considered to be an infringement of their right to have their own ideas. The law also forbids demonstrations and protests on the subject, and specifically prohibits anyone from stating that "non-traditional sexual relationships" are equivalent or equal to heterosexual ones, both of which are things that consistently make the UN frown very, very sternly. Note that they have not criminalized either homosexuality or homosexual behavior in private -- they were pretty late to the party on that (1993, to be exact), but it is entirely legal to be gay in Russia, and the age of consent is the same regardless of the gender(s) involved.

I'll also note that it was entirely legal to be gay in most of the US a long time before it was a good idea to tell anyone about it, and that the law apparently does not specify what, exactly, constitutes "propaganda". That last is especially troubling. On the one hand, it gives them enough wiggle room to conspicuously not touch any of the Olympians or the foreign support personnel who are not actively handing out pamphlets to middle-schoolers, while still claiming that the law is valid and will be enforced; on the other hand, in the worst-case scenario, it's possible to stretch the idea of "propaganda" to encompass someone who is openly gay and exists in public spaces with the attitude that they're due the same respect as someone who happens to be heterosexual.

I expect the IOC is also kind of pissed by being blindsided. Cities bid years in advance; the federal law causing the kerfuffle was passed in 2013. If said kerfuffle had happened when bids were going around, there's an excellent chance that Russia would not have been given the games, if only to avoid the mess. This is really not something they'd have thought to check for -- Russia is considered a developed nation. They have CT scanners and toaster ovens and skyscrapers and grubby mass transit and stupid reality shows on TV, not to mention the stunning advances they've made in the field of skeezy internet pornography. Most of the things most of the people in Russia complain about most of the time fall squarely into the hashtag "firstworldproblems". When countries like that bid for the Olympics, the IOC expects to check into things like 'are there enough hotels in the region' and 'do they have a semi-sane plan for building a stadium', not 'have they enacted any massive human rights violations recently'.

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