UBC Law prof Margot Young discusses Sochi and human rights
With mounting pressure against Russia over the country’s gay rights laws and the female ski jumping ban lifted ahead of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, UBC Law Professor Margot Young examines the intersection of human rights and sport.
What do you make of the International Olympic Committee’s response to assurances from Russian officials that athletes and spectators will be exempt from anti-gay laws?
The athletes, and others associated with the Games, are protected, but not the local citizens. The real harm attached to the law remains unchallenged and the Russian human rights environment is not changed for the better. Once the Olympics are over, there’s no exemption for anybody. Where’s the human rights legacy? Sure, the human rights harm in this case doesn’t originate with the IOC, which is different from the women ski jumpers and the Vancouver Olympics, but is this the best the international Olympics movement can do, given the tremendous financial and status leverage it has over host countries?
What role does the IOC play in regard to human rights protections?
The IOC trumpets the key relationship between the Olympics movement and universal human norms of equality in excellence and achievement. But many Olympics operate in nations where significant human rights are clearly in peril. The Olympic movement has a complex and complicated relationship with human rights observance. Does it shine a necessary spotlight on local abuses—such as in Russia—or does it implicitly condone, even exacerbate, ongoing local human rights abuses? The Sochi Games focus international attention and criticism on Russia’s recent homophobic legislation, but what the impact will be at the domestic level is unclear.
What’s the significance of the female ski jumpers case from the Vancouver Olympics?
The legal challenge that ski jumpers brought to the Vancouver Olympics was important, despite the fact that it wasn’t successful in gaining access to the Vancouver Olympics for the women jumpers. The judge at the trial level very clearly found there was discrimination; the only problem was that the IOC was beyond the reach of Canadian constitutional law. But the court clearly stated that it was gender discrimination to exclude the women while the men jumped.
And what does that case say about the Olympics, now that they are allowed to compete in Sochi?
There is a complicated and long story about women’s involvement in the Olympics, one that is part of a larger conversation about gender and sport generally. One only needs to look at issues of discrimination against girls and women locally to illustrate this. Ongoing issues around gender and sport in Canada and B.C., constantly play out over such things as membership on elite teams, funding, even unequal allocation of playing field or ice rink times. Past attitudes, as well as current practices, show how ingrained and taken for granted assumptions of gender differences are in sport.
How do questions surrounding human rights in Vancouver compare to the human rights issues now being raised in Sochi?
It’s the tale of the two Winter Olympics.There are some interesting tensions and comparisons that come across the two Games. In Vancouver, we saw challenges based on gender discrimination by the Olympic organizers. In that case, athletes attempted to use the national constitution to challenge the organization’s discrimination. Switch forward to Sochi and it’s a different composition. There, it’s official discrimination and harassment on the basis of sexual orientation in the Russian legal system that is in conflict with the formal non-discriminatory norms of the IOC Charter.