Wonderful things flowed from the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games, including the rise of hometown pride T.J. Oshie of the U.S. Men’s Hockey team. But Sochi also illustrates the limits of human rights and the reckless ease with which spectacle outshines state-sanctioned discrimination.
The takeaway from Sochi must be “no more Sochis.” If the elegantly written Olympic Charter has value, its words require enamel. This is particularly true in the selection of a host city. Principle 6 of the Charter prohibits discrimination of any kind. Were it only so.
From forced evictions of Sochi residents to the exploitation of migrant workers to build the most expensive winter Olympic facilities and village in history, Sochi was off to an inauspicious start. Then a series of invidious anti-gay laws reminded the world that Russia’s discriminatory political heritage was alive and well.
In a letter to the International Olympic Committee last week, several human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, demanded basic reforms. They are long overdue.
The primary reform is to strengthen the Olympic host city bid process to ensure that the host country doesn’t employ laws that discriminate on protected grounds and against groups, including gay, lesbian, and transgendered people, in violation of international law. There also need to be mechanisms in place to impartially resolve human rights complaints related to Olympic preparations (read: wage theft and exploitation of labor and forced evictions of residents.) The process also should include independent analysis of a host country’s human rights record.
A second reform is a signed commitment that host cities not introduce policies after their selection that violate human rights laws (see Russia and its new anti-LGBT policies.) Move to discriminate, and the games are cancelled or relocated.
The third reform is a tweak of Principle 6 of the Olympic Charter to add “sexual orientation and gender identity“ to race, religion and politics as a form of discrimination incompatible with the Olympic movement.
The easiest way to de-politicize the Olympics is to settle on a selection process that marginalizes bad actors, irrespective of how much money and human capital they bring to the table. Boycotts rarely work — the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow games didn’t persuade Russia to un-invade Afghanistan. The U.S. decision to participate in the Sochi games and send a delegation that emphasized human dignity and rights, was wise but largely symbolic.
Putin got the spectacle that he craved. Let it be the last time human rights are sacrificed for national self-aggrandizement.