Rights groups say Russia is in the midst of a period of repression, particularly since the reelection of President Vladimir Putin last year. Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press
Growing international criticism of a new Russian law against gay "propaganda" has left some observers wondering whether the Sochi Games will leave an indelible mark not only on the host nation but the Olympic movement itself.
Rights groups say Russia is in the midst of a period of repression, particularly since the reelection of President Vladimir Putin last year. They point to a raft of repressive new laws, the most recent of which involves a vaguely worded ban on "propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations," under threat of steep fines or jail time.
In recent weeks, the new measure has sparked ever-louder calls to boycott the Olympic Games in Sochi this February, or to relocate them to a country that is more amenable to gay rights. The controversy has even prompted public statements from Western leaders including Prime Minister Stephen Harper and U.S. President Barack Obama.
'This will be the first homophobic Olympics, certainly.'—Minky Worden, Human Rights Watch
The contentious Russian legislation poses a problem for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and not only because of the negative publicity it has been generating. It also appears to contravene the "fundamental principles" of the Olympic Charter, which promotes non-discrimination. Finally, it could potentially threaten the safety of those who will attend the Sochi Games.
At a news conference on Friday, IOC president Jacques Rogge said he had received "written assurances" on the issue from his Russian counterparts.
"But there are still uncertainties and we have decided to ask for more clarification," he said. "The Olympic Charter is very clear. It says that sport is a human right and it should be available to all."
Olympic officials are likely working quietly to convince leaders in the Kremlin that they need to do more to guarantee the anti-gay law won't threaten the safety of Olympic athletes, officials or fans, said Dick Pound, a former senior member of the IOC and ex-head of the World Anti-Doping Agency.
"The answer is to get it done, and not to stand up on some pulpit and start preaching," he said in a phone interview with CBC News.
Others who have been involved with the Games in the past say they would like to see the IOC take a firmer public stance on the matter.
"The Olympic movement has got to take the lead in opposing this outrageous law and ensuring in the very least that the Winter Games go ahead with the full recognition of human rights," said Bruce Kidd, a former Olympian and professor at the University of Toronto who has written a book on IOC reform.
"That’s not happened recently. That didn’t happen in China," he added. "At the very least it has to happen in Sochi or the Olympic movement will lose considerable legitimacy among lots of people, including lots of people in sport."
Kidd said he hopes that Russia's anti-gay law becomes an issue next month when the IOC's 104 members converge at the Buenos Aires Hilton hotel to elect a new president.
Rogge is due to step down after 12 years at the helm of the international body, paving the way for a new top official. Kidd said he believes the incoming president will determine to a large extent how the IOC will handle the escalating controversy. "This is like a major change in government in what is a one-party state," he said.
Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives with Human Rights Watch (HRW), said her organization and other like-minded advocacy groups will be lobbying for the IOC to elect a president next month "who's actually going to enforce the human rights requirements of the Olympic charter."
Last week, HRW released a report listing abuses it has documented in Sochi, a city of 300,000 in southern Russia, as preparations for the Games move ahead.
The report cites "government efforts to intimidate several organizations and individuals who have investigated or spoken out against abuse of migrant workers, the impact of the construction of Olympic venues and infrastructure on the environment and health of residents, and unfair compensation for people forcibly evicted from their homes," as well as harassment of journalists who are reporting on the preparations.
When Olympic Pride House, a group which had set up a gay-friendly facility at the previous Games in London and Vancouver, applied to do the same in Sochi the report says the application was turned down by a Russian judge who wrote that hosting Olympic Pride House would "contradict the foundations of public morality."
"It's fair to say that Russia is going to give the Beijing Olympics a run for the money on human rights abuses, particularly the crackdown on the LGBT community and civil society," Worden said in a phone interview.
"This will be the first homophobic Olympics, certainly. That’s without precedent."