Sochi Isn’t a Host, and Olympic Athletes Aren’t Guests, So Stop Talking About Hospitality

The Bolshoy Ice Dome, Shayba Arena, and Fisht Olympic Stadium (in the background) under construction in Sochi, Russia.

The Bolshoy Ice Dome, Shayba Arena, and Fisht Olympic Stadium (in the background) under construction in Sochi, Russia.

Photo by Michael Heiman/Getty Images

Many of the people anxious to avoid making waves during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games speak of the need to respect Russian laws, even the dreadful laws repressing the freedom of expression of LGBT people and their allies.

Some base this stance on the argument that athletes are “guests” of their Russian “hosts” and that when you are a guest in someone’s home, you respect the rules of the house. Before a very welcome and sincere change of heart, U.S. runner Nick Symmonds compared the diplomatic silence he planned to keep at the recent World Athletics Championship in Moscow to visiting a family and not telling the parents how to raise their children. In the end, though, Symmonds was one of the few brave athletes to speak out against the anti-gay laws while in Moscow, but far too many athletes and officials seem to accept this analogy.

Just last week, U.S. figure skater Jeremy Abbott is reported as saying, “Russia is hosting us. I’m not going to go into somebody’s house and be like, ‘Um, the way you decorate is hideous, and you need to completely redo this or I’m never coming back.’ It’s a little rude, so I don’t want to say bad things about a country that’s hosting the world, essentially.”

It’s a lousy analogy.

The Olympic organizing committees are not hosts, they are not heads of households. They are suppliers who have sought the right, in a competitive bidding process, to use the intellectual property of the International Olympic Committee for their mutual benefit. No athlete asked for the privilege of competing in Sochi specifically. It was the Russians who asked for the privilege of organizing the 2014 Winter Olympics for the benefits they felt they would provide, not out of altruistic hospitality. When they won their bid, they signed on to the values and principles of the IOC, including Principle 4 (sport is a human right) and Principle 6 (no discrimination in sport) of the Olympic Charter. The government of Russia signed a contract with the IOC, and the IOC needs to enforce that contract.

When you choose to visit a foreign country as a tourist or on business, you do indeed accept that you will have to obey its laws and customs. You are a guest, the nation is your host. On this basis, many of us have a list of countries we simply will not visit, both because we don’t wish to provide financial support to an unjust regime and to avoid having to comply with intolerable laws.

But it’s not as if those thousands of athletes in Sochi will be a bunch of wandering ski bums who just happen to find themselves on the shores of the Black Sea in February 2014. The athletes (and coaches, and trainers, and support staff) have no choice whatsoever on the venue of the Olympics. If they want to compete, they must go there and nowhere else.

As the client responsible for this contract, the International Olympic Committee has a duty to the athletes. The IOC isn’t an innocent bystander to Russian legislation. It is the owner of the event: The Russian flag will be flying over Sochi, but so will the Olympic flag. The IOC calls sport a human right and values sport for all, but it also declares itself satisfied by vague Russian assurances that no one will be arrested during the Olympics simply for being gay, while continuing to ignore the fact that the “propaganda” that remains proscribed can be anything the Russians (or the IOC) says it is.

That isn’t good enough. Olympians are clients with contractual relationships that are being violated. It is time for the host and guest analogy to be banned from discussion of what behavior is acceptable and advisable in Sochi. Like any self-respecting client, when you don’t get what you paid for, you complain or take your business elsewhere.

While she may want to respect her mother-in-law’s tastes when she heads to her home for Thanksgiving, an athlete should not receive threats from her national sports federation about the color she paints her nails. And while public displays of affection aren’t always appropriate in a fine restaurant, a skater should be able to embrace his husband when he wins a gold medal. Certainly any person present in Sochi should be able to take the hand of any other person of any gender in the spirit of the Olympic Charter.

Defending the Olympic Charter isn’t a political act, nor is it a social faux pas. It is simply the right thing to do.