Russia will enforce a new law cracking down on gay rights activism when it hosts international athletes and fans during next year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, the country’s sports minister said on Friday, appearing to contradict assurances to the contrary from the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The contentious law was signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in late June, imposing fines on individuals accused of spreading “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors, and even proposing penalties for those who express these views online or in the news media. Gay pride rallies also are banned.
“An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn’t banned from coming to Sochi,” Russian Minister of Sports Vitaly Mutko said in an interview with R-Sport, the sports newswire of state news agency RIA Novosti. “But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable.”
Mutko emphasized that the law was not designed to punish anyone for being gay or lesbian. However, like the Russian lawmakers who authored the bill, Mutko said athletes would be punished only for propaganda, a word that remains ambiguous under the new law.
“The corresponding law doesn’t forbid non-traditional orientation, but other things: propaganda, involvement of minors and young people,” he said.
The law specifies punishment for foreign citizens, to include fines of up to 100,000 rubles (US$3,000), time in prison for up to 15 days, deportation and denial of reentry into Russia.
Four Dutch citizens working on a documentary film about gay rights in the northern Russian town of Murmansk were the first foreigners to be detained under the new law, although their case did not make it to court, according to RIA Novosti.
While activists and organizations supportive of gay rights have called for a ban on Russian-made products like Stolichnaya vodka in bars across North America, they have yet to find a unified response to the Sochi Games.
Instead of a boycott of the Olympics, athletes have made individual gestures and called for protests, such as a pride parade, to be held during the Games.
The IOC said last week that it had received assurances “from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games.” It pledged to ensure there would be no discrimination against athletes, officials, spectators and the media in Sochi.
IOC spokesman Mark Adams said on Thursday the committee continues to accept past assurances from the Russian government that the law will not affect athletes, officials or spectators during the Games.
Gerhard Heiberg, a senior IOC member from Norway, also said on Thursday that in winning the Games, Russia and the city of Sochi had committed to preventing discrimination of any sort. However, he issued a word of caution to the athletes.
“At the same time we always say to our athletes: ‘We do not want any demonstrations in one or the other direction. Please, you are there to compete and behave. Please don’t go out on the Net or in the streets,’” Heiberg said.