The Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next February are sure to be interesting. From a sporting standpoint it will be as fun as always, especially after the NHL and IOC came to an agreement to allow the players to head to Russia to compete for the gold. There's nothing like international hockey when the best players are representing.
But, this time around, things will be just as intriguing off the sporting stage. First, there were concerns about whether Sochi would even be ready to play host to the Games (concerns many still have). Now, we have a human-rights issue standing front and center. Specifically, Russia's new law banning homosexual activism (i.e. propagandizing), which results in arrest.
On Wednesday, the IOC issued a statement saying that the Olympics are free to anybody; no matter their race, gender or sexual orientation. Included in that statement was this: "We would oppose in the strongest terms any move that would jeopardise this principle."
Well, it looks like that edict might be put to the test, because on Thursday, Russian sports minister Vitaly Mutko said the new law will be enforced during the Olympics, as well. From the Associated Press:
In an interview with the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, the minister said: "An athlete of nontraditional sexual orientation isn't banned from coming to Sochi. But if he goes out into the streets and starts to propagandize, then of course he will be held accountable."
Sounds like the IOC and Russia are at a standstill, yet I doubt either side goes through with their threats, unless the IOC's definition of opposition in the strongest terms is just to issue another statement. But you never know, and just the threat should be enough to elicit a big response.
So how does this all tie into hockey? There are no openly gay hockey players who will be playing in Russia, right?
While that is indeed the case, what hockey does have is a large number of players who are openly supportive of gay rights and equality in sports through their affiliation with the You Can Play Project, founded by Patrick Burke, son of former Maple Leafs GM (and part of USA Hockey's Olympic staff) Brian Burke.
Many players have been on record before in support of LGBT rights, and as one of, if not the highest-profile sport in the Winter Games, hockey and its athletes could play a major role in how this issue plays out. Would any feel up to taking a stand in Sochi? And, if a player did stand up, would Russian officials dare arrest somebody of high profile like, say, Zdeno Chara? (Chara has done a video PSA for You Can Play.) Imagine the stir that would cause.
Meanwhile, the boycott issue keeps popping up. People are wondering if this is reason to skip the Games and try to make a statement. Burke doesn't advocate a boycott, citing an example from the 1968 games that were boycotted by Kareem Abdul-Jabaar but are remembered for the protests of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Johnny Weir, an openly gay figure skater, doesn't support a boycott either.
And I agree with them. I don't think a boycott is the right approach. However, if something were to happen to a player who tried to make a statement, then I would be fully in favor of a country pulling the whole team, or even the entire delegation, from the Games.
Though they often are, the Olympics aren't supposed to be about politics or other similar issues. But this one just won't go away, and it shouldn't.