The International Olympic Committee (IOC), led for the last twelve years by Belgian Jacques Rogge, will hold its next presidential election on September 10th in Buenos Aires, just 150 days before the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The IOC is about as transparent as the Vatican when it comes to selecting which male member will lead the 100 person conclave. (Only 16 women are in the group and none of them are candidates for the top job.) Doors are kept closed, balloting is kept secret. But an enormous question will be floating in the room: Does the IOC walk its talk when it comes to human rights? Will the next IOC President act on the belief that human rights are central to "Olympism" or just pay the idea lip service?
Russia's political and cultural lurch backwards has focused worldwide attention on an issue that had not been blinking on the IOC's radar screens—until now.
This year, the Russian Federation legalized the persecution of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people and criminalized freedom of expression for gays and their allies. The country has gone so far as to arrest tourists from foreign countries who dared to say that "gay is okay." Beyond that, the government's tacit approval of a retrograde popular culture is so terrorizing LGBT people and their allies that some are now seeking political asylum. The result has been a global outcry with movements to boycott Russian vodka, tourism, and other products, with the Olympics looming large.
The IOC has fumbled as the issue crescendoed, first saying it had concerns, then saying it had struck a deal with Russian officials to temporarily suspend enforcement of its heinous anti-gay laws—only to see the Russian government contradict that by saying no, in fact, they will enforce their anti-gay laws to the hilt. (Russian officials have threatened to arrest any athletes or visitors who violate the law.) The IOC's response has been flaccid throughout, but the Olympic Charter is unequivocal. Principle 6 plainly states that discrimination of any kind is incompatible with membership in the organization. The question is whether the IOC will actually act on that principle.
There are six candidates in the running to be the new President of the IOC: Thomas Bach of Germany, C.K. Wu of Taiwan, Richard Carrion of Puerto Rico, Ng Ser Miang of Singapore, Sergei Bubka of the Ukraine and Denis Oswald of Switzerland. Now is the time for the candidates to speak to this issue. Each of these men should have to answer these three questions:
• What is your commitment to upholding (in actions, not mere assertions) the Olympic Charter and the fundamental Principles of Olympism, specifically Principle 6: "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"?
• Given that the charter states that "discrimination… is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement," what should happen when a nation violates it?
• In the case of Russia, now violating the Olympic Charter with its anti-gay laws, what should the IOC do to rectify the situation before the opening of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi? What will your position as IOC President be and what actions will you take with respect to Russia?
There are many other questions to answer, of course, such as how the IOC can possibly assure the safety of athletes and visitors in such a climate, but for now, answering the three core questions will let the world learn the character of the men who would lead the Olympics and whether the world should accord the Olympic Charter any credibility at all on basic human rights.
As Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch put it in a recent New York Times opinion piece: "Russian authorities are apparently counting on the I.O.C. to keep quiet again."
The IOC should not enjoy the luxury of keeping quiet.