Oct 12, 2013 10:53 PM GMT
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October 9, 2013, 10:53 am
A Clever Solution to an Olympic Problem
By FRANK BRUNI
For athletes and others going to the Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, it’s a much-discussed riddle: how to take a stand against the host country’s reprehensible anti-gay laws, which have rightly caused international outrage, without running afoul of them or of the International Olympic Committee’s prohibition against political statements and protests.
Many suggestions have been floated. Some people, including me, have theorized that if enough athletes wore or carried rainbow flags or icons of a discreet size, officials would be hard pressed to punish them, because ejecting them from the games or meting out some lesser penalty would only heighten the disruption and draw more attention to the gesture. But that’s a theory, not an assurance.
In private meetings, some LGBT rights advocates have envisioned the following: during the parade of athletes at the opening ceremonies, pairs of two men and two women would hold hands, sending a message of solidarity with LGBT people without saying or brandishing anything overtly political. But would enough athletes feel comfortable doing this?
Now the LGBT rights organizations Athlete Ally and All Out are promoting an alternative that may well steer clear of the flaws and dangers of other ideas. It involves appropriating the I.O.C.’s own words and stated values and turning them into a coded affirmation of LGBT equality, an epigrammatic protest of Russia’s laws that doesn’t include the word “gay” or any of the conventional symbols of the gay rights movement. Russians wouldn’t easily be able to classify it as so-called gay propaganda, which the country deems illegal. And I.O.C. officials could hardly take offense and muster any opposition.
The Olympic charter includes something called Principle 6, which decries discrimination of any kind and makes clear that the games are committed to equality and human rights. So Athlete Ally, working with a company called the Idea Brand and the professional football player Brendon Ayanbadejo, came up with and developed the notion of using the very name of that clause, along with a logo or logos that allude to it, as a rebuke of Russia’s laws and a method for athletes and fans to express their convictions. The symbol and the syllables P6, perhaps worn as a sticker, perhaps woven into clothing, could evolve into something along the lines of a Livestrong bracelet: a ubiquitous motif that doesn’t spell out a whole philosophy but has an unmistakable meaning and message.
“From the moment that the Russian laws became a big story, folks have been trying to think of ways to use the Olympics to shine a light on them and decry them,” noted Brian Ellner, a member of Athlete Ally’s board of directors.
Some advocates of LGBT equality called for a boycott of the Winter Games, but many others, myself included, thought that a boycott went too far and would turn the constructive, important attention being paid to Russia’s unacceptable laws into a less constructive lament and debate about what the American athletes who’d trained for this moment had lost and what the sports fans who relish the Olympics had been denied.
Some advocates urged that the Winter Games be moved, which was highly unlikely to happen and indeed isn’t happening.
But those dead ends didn’t mean the death of an intense and widespread desire to turn these Olympics into a teachable moment.
“I don’t want to see a boycott,” said Nick Symmonds, an American middle-distance runner who was on our country’s Olympic teams in 2008 and 2012, participating in the Summer Games in Beijing and then London. “But I do expect to see the I.O.C. uphold the charter. If you read what it says there, it says that any form of discrimination will not be tolerated. And clearly they’re allowing a form of discrimination to be tolerated.”
“The Olympics have to be about equality,” Symmonds added. “And Russia is very clearly not about equality.”
He recently returned from Russia, where he competed in the 2013 world championships, winning a silver in the 800 meters, and where he made it a point, on Russian soil, to denounce Russia’s laws, telling a Russian news agency: “I believe that all humans deserve equality no matter how God made them.” He told me that he doubted he’d be arrested or have his medal taken away—neither of which happened—and was willing in any case to take the chance.
In addition to his comments in Russia, Symmonds is among a growing number of former and imminent Olympians who have put their names on a petition, as part of the P6 movement, to implore the I.O.C. to state more clearly than it has thus far that its anti-discrimination philosophy embraces gay people and rights; that Russia’s laws aren’t consistent with the I.O.C. charter and the Olympic spirit; and that Russia, as the host country, needs to be cognizant of that.
The list of prominent athletes who have joined Symmonds in speaking up for equality and drawing attention to Principle 6 includes the tennis star Andy Roddick and the National Basketball Association player Steve Nash, both veterans of the Olympics.
Andre Banks, the executive director of All Out, said that it’s clear to him, from his outreach and conversations over recent months, that “a lot of people are looking for a way to speak out.”
“I’ve heard from many people in many different sports,” Banks told me. He added that when it comes to athletes who are bound for Sochi, “They feel it’s irresponsible to be asked to choose between the sport that they love and the principles that they believe in.”
That’s where the Principle 6 movement comes in. It’s an attempt to take full advantage of the world’s attention to the Winter Games without putting athletes at risk of censure. Maybe they hold up six fingers. Maybe their outfits include something with a P6 logo, several designs for which are being considered.
“I think you’re likely to see merchandise, hats, gloves, shirts,” said Banks.
All Out, Athlete Ally and their supporters realize that none of this will work if they don’t quickly educate the public, through social media and other avenues, about what P6 stands for. They’re now embarking on that mission, which is helped hugely by the involvement of athletes like Symmonds, Roddick, Nash and the diver Greg Louganis, an openly gay former Olympian who has been vocal about the Russian laws.
They want to make P6 the rainbow flag that’s not a rainbow flag, the shout-out for equality that sidesteps the syllable gay, which is so ridiculously risky in the context of these particular Winter Games.
For an athlete to wear a P6 symbol would be “like a Supreme Court justice tattooing the First Amendment on his or her arm,” Ellner said. “Is that political? No. It’s the Constitution.”
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