Mahler: Gays and gulags at the 2014 Sochi Olympics

Olympic rings stand in front of the airport

Olympic rings stand in front of the airport in Adler outside Sochi. (Credit: Getty Images, 2013)

Lest you think the International Olympic Committee doesn't take its ideals seriously, consider its solution to this whole LGBT debacle in Sochi: Protest zones.

Yes, this is how the IOC plans to deal with a 2014 Winter Games host country that treats gay people like drug dealers. If the concept sounds familiar, that's because we've seen it before -- no, not in the Warsaw Ghetto -- at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

In order to protest, you had to obtain a government permit. Guess what? Not one of the dozens of applications filed by Chinese citizens was accepted. Instead, applicants were detained, harassed and jailed. Two elderly women who had hoped to speak out about a land dispute were sent to a forced labor camp for "reeducation." The policy was basically a convenient means for China to identify and persecute dissidents.


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We don't know yet precisely how Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to set up his country's protest zones, but given the Chinese precedent, the general outlines aren't much in doubt. Even if protesters don't wind up in a Siberian gulag, the zones aren't exactly an invitation to free expression: "Come on out and be heard before we round you up!"

It's worth keeping in mind, as the 2014 Winter Games approach, that the IOC probably could have stopped Russia from introducing its anti-gay legislation with a single threatening phone call from IOC President Thomas Bach to Putin.

Why would the Olympic Committee take such a forthright stand? Maybe because its own charter specifically bars "any sort of discrimination." Of course, the IOC chose not to intervene, and has since done a very unconvincing job of convincing the world that athletes and spectators would be exempt from Russia's law banning "homosexual propaganda."

The committee's inaction looks all the more pathetic now that two European officials -- including the president of Germany, Joachim Gauck -- have announced their intention to boycott the games. More boycott announcements will surely follow. The pressure on the IOC will continue to grow, and the IOC will continue to pretend that it doesn't have a big problem on its hands.

Whenever conversation turns to Sochi, the IOC points out that its charter doesn't only ban discrimination, it also prohibits political protests. "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas," the charter states.

This, presumably, is why Olympic officials think they'll be able to herd the Sochi protesters into discrete areas that will surely be many miles from the events themselves. What they're forgetting is that we've seen this stunt before. So have the protesters.

Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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