The International Olympic Committee Comes Out Against Anti-Gay Discrimination

If the IOC Charter had been amended a few years ago, could Russia have been denied the right to host the 2014 Winter Games?

Photo by Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images

A few hours ago, I saw some news that literally made me jump for joy: At long last the International Olympic Committee will change the wording of the Olympic Charter to include protection from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This development was part of 40 recommendations published today ahead of next month’s IOC meeting in Monaco, where IOC President Thomas Bach’s “Agenda 2020” process will conclude with significant changes to the bidding process for and organization of the Olympic Games.

The change in language is significant. More than four years ago, I was part of the first formal attempt to demand these reforms. The Federation of Gay Games’ “Principle 5 Campaign” (since then, nondiscrimination has been renumbered as Principle 6) called for sexual orientation and gender identity to be made explicit as criteria protected from discrimination in sport. This call was taken up by Pride House International, particularly during the Sochi Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The new language will say: “The enjoyment of the rights and freedoms set forth in the Olympic Charter shall be secured without discrimination of any kind, such as race, color, sex, sexual orientation, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.”

A few weeks ago, when much ado was made about a proposed change in the Olympic host city contract, I expressed great skepticism. The language in question had already been part of past contracts, and any reference to the nondiscrimination clause that didn’t explicitly include sexual orientation was of little interest to gay and lesbian athletes.

Since then, more meat has been put on those bones, with news that the host city contract would also at last protect human rights (in theory, at least). Soon, at last, the language of Principle 6 will make explicit the protection for gay and lesbian athletes that former IOC President Jacques Rogge and current boss Bach claimed were already there implicitly.

Now comes a lot of hard work for the IOC: How will respect for human rights be monitored and measured? How will the contractual commitments be enforced? Without monitoring, measuring, and enforcement, these commitments are not worth much. Indeed, they may provide cover for the IOC (and its sponsors) while affording no meaningful protection for athletes.

How will the dozens of international sports federations and the nearly 200 national Olympic committees apply the new language of the Olympic Charter? The IOC claims to govern all of world sport, not just the Olympic movement. Besides, discrimination can still take place upstream from the Olympics. An athlete in prison (or who has been executed) for homosexuality is not in a good place to take part in qualifying trials.

And so, although I’m very pleased right now, I remain skeptical that governing bodies are truly interested in ensuring that sport is for all. Last week I was a guest at an international conference that brought together the rights holders of major sporting events and local authorities interested in hosting them. The talk given by the Federation of Gay Games and the Paris 2018 Gay Games host committee was very well received, and the people we met there were keen to talk about the Gay Games and other LGBTQ sports events. But other speakers told the delegates that Europe could no longer host major events—there’s no money, no public support, and widespread disillusionment with ethically dubious right holders like FIFA, we heard. And then there was the fellow who praised the efforts of homophobic, sexist, racist Qatar, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi to become players in world sport. When finally questioned as to the compatibility of these country’s discriminatory regimes with international sport events, he replied that great progress had been made regarding women’s participation in sport, “because the emirs all have daughters, and their daughters want to do sport.” Perhaps one day an emir will have a gay or lesbian child, and homosexual athletes will be welcome. In the meantime, gays face exclusion from events such at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, where the sports minister has refused to state whether homosexuals will be admitted to the country.

But even this skeptic is willing to salute Thomas Bach for making a reality of the change he hinted at in Paris one year ago, when for the first time an IOC president met with LGBTQ sports groups. Whereas hopes for change in the Catholic Church were smashed when the draft document of the recent synod was finalized, we can be pretty sure that the 40 recommendations for Agenda 2020 will be approved in Monaco. After that? The ball is in the IOC’s court.