As concerns about human rights and security increase ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi, Swiss athletes are preparing to test the limits of human endurance – and non-governmental organisations the limits of free speech.
“It’s incomprehensible that while presidents of various countries which support human rights have cancelled, two Swiss ministers are going, including the president,” Mehdi Künzle from the Swiss gay organisation Pink Cross told swissinfo.ch.
Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter, who holds the rotating presidency this year, will attend the opening ceremony on February 7 – unlike US President Barack Obama, French President François Hollande or German President Joachim Gauck.
Sports Minister Ueli Maurer will arrive later and cheer on the 150 or so Swiss athletes – none of whom is openly gay, according to Künzle.*
One of campaigners’ main objections is a law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2013, banning “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”. This includes giving children any information about homosexuality and holding gay pride rallies.
“Russia is a catastrophe for the LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender]community and NGOs working with human rights. One of my friends works in Russia and her office was bombed in the middle of the afternoon; fortunately she wasn’t hurt. We can’t understand how [politicians] can go there and shake Putin’s hand,” Künzle said.
“Apparently the political stakes are more important than human rights,” he added, although he stressed that Pink Cross and Russian gay organisations are not calling for a boycott by athletes.
For his part, Maurer has said boycotting the Olympics “would be petty”, believing sporting events should not be politicised.
However, youth-corrupting homosexuals are currently the least of Putin’s worries. On January 7, he vowed to “annihilate” all terrorists in Russia, talking tough after two bomb attacks in the southern city of Volgograd killed 34 people and raised security fears.
Putin has staked his prestige on Sochi, a former Soviet-era seaside resort at the western edge of the Caucasus mountains and within a strip of land insurgents want to turn into an Islamic state. Insurgent leader Doku Umarov has urged militants to use “maximum force” to prevent the Games from going ahead.
The Swiss foreign ministry, in its travel advice for Russia, warns that “despite tightened security measures, the risk of further terrorist acts cannot be ruled out”.
The 2014 Olympics – the first in Russia since the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow, which were overshadowed by a US boycott – are intended to showcase how Russia has changed since the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991. Costing a reported $50 billion (CHF45 billion), they are the costliest Olympics ever.
The 22nd Winter Olympics will take place in Sochi, Russia, from February 7-23, 2014. The Paralympics will follow from March 6-17.
The 11 athletic venues are divided into two clusters: one on the Black Sea coast and the other up in the Caucasus Mountains. Indoor events will be held at the former and snow events in the resort of Krasnaya Polyana.
Some 5,500 athletes from 88 countries will compete in 98 events in 15 winter sports. Six nations – Malta, Paraguay, Timor Leste, Togo, Tonga and Zimbabwe – are all expected to make their Winter Olympic debut.
At $50 billion (CHF45 billion), it is estimated to be the costliest Olympics ever.
No delegation plans to boycott Sochi – neighbouring Georgia wobbled, but in December 2013 said it planned to take part. No athlete so far selected by Swiss Olympic has refused to go, according to spokeswoman Martina Gasner.
She does, however, point out that there are IOC (International Olympic Committee) guidelines and conditions on participation and that all athletes have to sign and respect the Olympic Charter.
“This states – and always has done, it’s not new for Sochi – that the Olympic Games must not be misused for political statements. For example in Beijing [which hosted the Olympics in 2008] athletes couldn’t wave any ‘Free Tibet’ banners or anything,” she told swissinfo.ch.
“If athletes paint their fingernails or wave rainbow flags [in support of gay rights] or whatever, then the IOC will probably approach them and look into sanctions. The athletes know this.”
She says Swiss Olympic recommends athletes exercise caution when commenting on certain political topics, “but they aren’t muzzled – in Switzerland there’s freedom of speech and athletes can talk about Russia if they want”.
House of Switzerland
One place they will be able to do this is the House of Switzerland, one of only four national pavilions in Sochi’s coastal Olympic Park, and the only one open to the public. (The athletic venues are divided into mountain and coastal clusters.)
Nicolas Bideau, head of Presence Switzerland, the government office responsible for Switzerland’s image abroad, denies this dearth of official representation in the coastal park was because other countries were keeping a low profile in Russia.
“Absolutely not. The big alpine nations are more sports orientated and decided to be present in the mountain cluster,” he told swissinfo.ch (see interview, right).
“We’re focusing not only on sport but communication – country-branding communication. That’s why we decided to be in the coastal cluster, because we know that the Russian people are mostly going to be there and not in the mountains.”
Nevertheless, in the run-up to the Games sporting excitement has taken a backseat to human rights, notably complaints in the West and among Russian liberals that Putin has stifled dissent and encouraged intolerance.
“With regard to freedom of expression, the situation in Russia has clearly deteriorated over the past 12 months,” Reto Rufer from Amnesty International Switzerland told swissinfo.ch. “A clear sign is the introduction of a series of repressive laws that allows the government to silence its critics.”
These include the “foreign agent law”, which requires all NGOs to register as foreign agents if they receive funding from abroad. Failure to comply can result in hefty fines.
There are signs, however, that Putin is not deaf to the international outcry. In an attempt to defuse criticism of the country’s human rights record and anti-gay law, Russia appeared to bow to international pressure by pledging to set up public protest zones in Sochi.
On January 4, Putin also rescinded a blanket ban on demonstrations in and around Sochi during the Games, a move welcomed by the IOC as “part of the Russian authorities’ plans to ensure free expression during the Games”.
It followed a series of surprising moves by Putin, when he first pardoned an old foe, former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, allowed an amnesty that saw two Pussy Riot punk band members released from prison and dropped charges against 30 Greenpeace anti-oil drilling activists, including Switzerland’s Marco Weber.
“The amnesty doesn’t fundamentally change anything on the ground,” Rufer said. “Of course it’s a welcome step for the people concerned, but it’s also a sign that justice in Russia is far from independent. It’s rather a sign of the politicisation of the judiciary system: the president can grant an amnesty as he can introduce laws and influence the judiciary to sentence people who criticise him or the government.”
Some people argue that big sporting events force countries to clean up their act if the global spotlight is on them. The Russian sections of environmental NGOs Greenpeace and WWF, for example, both welcomed the IOC’s decision to award the Games to Sochi.
“It means that not only Russian authorities are responsible for the ecological security of development of Sochi as a mountain-climate resort, but also the IOC,” they said in a statement.
Rufer says the issue of whether hosting the Olympics can benefit the human rights situation in a country is “complex”.
“In Beijing, I would say there was not a lot of sustainable positive development. We will see whether the Olympics in Russia will have any positive effect,” he said.
“Of course it’s also possible that after the Olympics the regime will target everyone who in their eyes was responsible for a negative perception of Russia abroad.”
*Since this interview was conducted, it has come to swissinfo.ch’s attention that Swiss snowboarder Simona Meiler is openly gay.
July 4, 2007- The IOC chooses Sochi as the 2014 host.
October 2011 - Russian court rejects the registration of a LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual, and transgender) Pride House, citing that LGBT would “contradict the foundations of public morality and government policy in the area of protection of the family, motherhood and childhood”.
June 30, 2013 - The Russian anti-gay propaganda law, which passes overwhelmingly in Russian parliament and is signed by President Vladimir Putin, bans the public discussion of gay rights and relationships anywhere children might hear or see it. Those found in breach of it can be fined and, if they are foreign, deported.
July 2013 - Global protests include boycotting Russian vodka.
August 3, 2013 - The IOC releases a statement that it has “received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the [anti-gay] legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games”.
August 9, 2013 - US President Barack Obama rejects calls to boycott Sochi unless the law is repealed, saying it would hurt American athletes who have trained and sacrificed to make it to the Olympics.
August 12, 2013 – Russia’s interior ministry confirms the anti-gay law will be enforced at Olympics.
September 28, 2013 - The IOC says Russia has not violated the Olympic Charter with its anti-gay law.
December 29-30, 2013 - two separate suicide bombings a day apart target mass transportation in the southern city of Volgograd, killing 34 people overall.
January 9, 2014 - five corpses with gunshot wounds and an explosive device are found in cars in Stavropol, about 300km from Sochi.
(Source: CNN, news agencies)