The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Sochi 2014 Olympics and Human Rights

Can the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games uphold the fundamental principles of Olympism?

As a Guinness World Record athlete—who is gay—I have strong feelings about the human rights violations taking place against members of the LGBT community in Russia and the Sochi 2014 Olympic Games. 

The propaganda laws in Russia are promoting violence against LGBT people without punishment for the perpetrators. Even saying ‘neutral’ things about homosexuality is a violation of the anti-"propaganda" bill targeting 'non-traditional' relationships signed by Vladmir Putin in June of 2013. The only context that you can publicly speak about homosexuality in Russia is to say negative things. What kind of bigotry does this type of law breed in a society?

The Human Rights Watch group released a graphic video reported in Slate on February 4, 2014. (Please use discretion if you choose to view this video.) The video shows gangs of people preying on single gay men and brutalizing them. The images and stories are extremely disturbing to witness.

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I include a link to the video to illustrate how the trickle down of Russia’s anti-"propaganda" law is creating a society that is ignorant and fears anyone who is different or 'non-traditional' based on sexual orientation. This fear leads to homophobia and violence against people who are gay, lesbian, transgender and anyone who questions their sexual orientation.

I know what it feels like to be 'bashed' by a group of homophobes. In 2003, I was walking home from dinner in Manhattan and was jumped by three guys and got beaten up badly. I recount the experience on page 275 of The Athlete’s Way:

“I always walk home from Pete’s Tavern on the same route—down Irving Place to Sixteenth Street, drop Julia at her house, head straight east through Stuyvesant Park to my apartment on Avenue A. I was on a familiar route and on autopilot, walking and talking on my cell phone.  

As I entered the gates of Stuyvesant Park, three guys hanging out asked me. “Excuse me, sir, do you know what time it is?” in an overly genuine and earnest tone that made my ears perk up. I remember thinking how strange it was that they call me sir because I was dressed like a total slob...a little street smart voice said, “That’s strange.” I took a few more steps when suddenly I got clubbed on the back of my head. My face was against the pavement in a millisecond. It happened lightning fast.

Within the next second the kicking and punching started. Surrounded by three guys who had obviously followed me from the gate, I was like a punching bag at their disposal, facedown at first and then curled up in a fetal position getting kicked primarily in the torso and head. The feeling was unlike anything I had experienced. It felt like being in an industrial washing machine with about eight cinder blocks.

Your whole life really does flash before your eyes when you think you’re going to die. I kept wondering why three guys would gang up on one. It seemed so cowardly and unsportsmanlike. If you want to beat me up, at least give me a fighting chance. The odds were clearly not in my favor. The only way to fight back would be self-defense and not giving in.”

I survived that encounter with just a few bumps and scars but still have a fair amount of PTSD surrounding the episode. Being the victim of a hate crime makes me sympathetic to anyone who is bullied or brutalized for being gay on a visceral level. I know how terrifying it is to be beaten up by a gang as the victim of a homophobic crime.

IGNORANCE = FEAR 

When I came out in the 1980s, the AIDS epidemic was taking hold in gay communities across the United States. At the time, President Ronald Reagan refused to acknowledge, or even say, the word AIDS in public. Gay men were stigmatized and homophobia ran wild. There were some politicians who wanted to pass legislation that would mandate HIV testing of gay people, to tattoo HIV+ people and quarantine them in the equivalent of concentration camps.

I was living in the West Village of Manhattan and my friends were dying all around me. I joined ACT UP and took to the streets in non-violent protest. We wore T-shirts saying things like "The Government Has Blood on It’s Hands” as we held ‘die ins’ in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral and shut down the CDC. Keith Haring’s poster from 1989 sums up the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power and how "Ignorance = Fear" and that "Silence = Death."

Last week I was back in Greenwich Village to see my friend Nora Burns perform at the Stonewall Inn. Being back inside the birthplace of the ‘gay pride’ riots that took place in the summer of 1969 reminded me of how far America has come in the past 45 years regarding equal rights.

It was bittersweet being back at Stonewall in light of what’s going on in 21st century Russia—and other countries around the world—where governments still treat human beings like second class citizens or criminals based on their sexual orientation. Luckily, in an age of social media it's difficult for any government to completely hide violations of human rights.

As a recent Forbes magazine article titled “For Coke and McDonald’s Ignoring the Power of Social Media Means No Medals in Sochi” pointed out, the backlash against corporations who refuse to publicly take a stand against the human rights violations occurring in Russia cannot be avoided in an age of social media.

I think that Google did a terrific job of showing their universal support for equal rights and the Olympic spirit by using a rainbow flag doodle featuring principle six of the Olympic Charter. Principle 6 reads: "Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement."

Can Sochi 2014 Uphold the Fundamental Principles of Olympism?

The International Olympic Committee has said in the past that they do not comment on local laws as long as the Olympic Charter is not violated. Yet Russia's anti-gay laws do violate the Olympic Charter. Please take a few minutes to read the "Principles of Olympism" as stated on pages 11 and 12 in this PDF of the Olympic Charter from September 9, 2013.

Is there any way that the Sochi Olympics can represent “the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity” as stated in the Charter? It seems hypocritical of the IOC to turn a blind eye to the human rights violations occurring in Russia when the Bye-Law to rule 5 clearly states 'The objectives of the programmes adopted by Olympic Solidarity are to contribute and promote the fundamental principles of Olympism.'

Conclusion: Solidarity and/or Non-Violent Protest

With the opening ceremonies taking place tonight in Sochi, it is a shame that athletes who have trained so hard for this moment are caught between a rock and a hard place.

Firstly, their athletic efforts and a lifetime of training may be mired by politics. Secondly, if they speak out against Russia’s Propaganda laws and human rights violations they are not only breaking local laws, they are also defying the Olympic Charter banning political activism. I’m not sure what I would do if I were an athlete competing in the Sochi Olympics.

During qualifications for the slopestyle snowboarding, Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev may have been the first athlete to make a statement of protest at the Sochi Olympics. After Sobolev crashed on his second run, he held up his board displaying a design that depicted a knife-wielding woman wearing a ski mask or balaclava, which is what the members of the feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot wear when they perform.

Last December, two Pussy Riot band members were released from prison under an "amnesty law," after they had been incarcerated since the winter of 2012 when the band publicly denounced Russian President Vladmir Putin. Madonna introduced the two Pussy Riot members at an Amnesty International concert in Brooklyn on February 5, 2014.

When the Russian news agency in Sochi asked Sobolev if the design was a nod in support of Pussy Riot he simply said: "Anything is possible." Sobolev also told a Russian reporter from R-Sport that he was not the designer of the board… It will be interesting to see how the Human Rights Campaign plays out in Sochi over the next few weeks. Hopefully all the protests and political activism will be non-violent.

If you’d like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Mediocrity and the Epidemic of Complacency
Engaging the Powers that Be Through Daily Physicality
Jason Collins: The Bravery of Coming Out
The Neuroscience of Madonna’s Enduring Success
The Secret to Becoming a Trailblazer

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete's Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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