From Hollywood to Broadway, the entertainment industry is using its star power and financial muscle to raise a storm of protest over the anti-gay legislation in Russia that is battering the image of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, British writer-actor Stephen Fry and Star Trek actor George Takei are among those who have publicly condemned the new law, fueling an uproar that is overshadowing preparations for the Feb. 7-23 Olympics.
With stars and activists using their high-profile platform to bring the issue to global attention, the gay rights crackdown in Russia has exploded into a hot-button controversy that is challenging Olympic leaders like no other since the protests over Tibet and human rights before the 2008 Games in Beijing.
President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Olympic athletes such as Greg Louganis have also denounced the law that prohibits the spread of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” among minors.
The law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for violators. Hefty fines are levied for holding gay pride rallies. Foreigners can be deported.
Whether Putin is listening to the outcry is unclear, but the backlash has even triggered calls for a boycott of the games that he was instrumental in securing for Russia.
Also, the souring relations between the U.S. and Russia over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Syria, human rights and other issues has ratcheted up the tensions in the buildup to the Olympics. Obama cancelled a planned summit meeting with Putin after Russia granted temporary asylum to Snowden.
Obama and Cameron have both ruled out a boycott because it would penalize the athletes who have trained for years to compete. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games are widely viewed as failures.
“One of the things I’m really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kinds of attitudes that we’re seeing here,” Obama said Friday. “If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker.”
Cameron echoed Obama on Saturday, saying, “I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics.”
In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee is coming under pressure to take a tougher line and demand that Russia respect the Olympic Charter’s rules against discrimination.
One senior IOC member even suggested taking the games away from Russia if no solution is found.
“They have accepted the words of the Olympic Charter and the host city contract, so either they respect it or we have to say goodbye to them,” Gerhard Heiberg of Norway told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Heiberg, who organized the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and chairs the IOC marketing commission, said the IOC should stay out of domestic Russian politics but must be firm on what happens during the Sochi Games.
“This is a very important principle and we have to stick to that,” he said. “We cannot start giving in. Let’s wait and see. Either they accept or maybe we go somewhere else if worse comes to worse. I don’t think it will come to that.”
Heiberg acknowledged that the possibility of postponing the games or moving them elsewhere at short notice is remote. It takes years of preparations for a city to stage an Olympics.
With the Sochi Games less than six months away, the issue shows no sign of abating. It was the marquee names in the entertainment world who issued the strongest criticism that brought the issue to a global level.
Fierstein — winner of Tony Awards for the play Torch Song Trilogy — wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times last month saying Putin “has declared war on homosexuals” and calling on world leaders and the International Olympic Committee to demand the retraction of the laws under threat of a boycott.
“Mr. Putin’s campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain straight from the Nazi playbook,” Fierstein wrote.
Fry, the British entertainer and activist, posted an open letter this week to Cameron and the IOC comparing Putin’s “barbaric, fascist law” to persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.
“An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi is simply essential,” Fry wrote. “At all costs, Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world.”
Fry’s letter was posted to his 6 million Twitter followers and delivered to the IOC by the All Out advocacy group along with a petition signed by more than 300,000 people.
Takei, best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the “Star Trek” series, posted a blog this week denouncing “Russia’s cynical and deplorable actions” against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
“It now seeks to spread that hate abroad through its tainted Olympics,” he wrote. “If Russia hopes to stand with the international community, it must accept and adopt international principles of equality and non-discrimination.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black called for Hollywood to speak out, citing the financial clout of the movie business.
“There is virtually no other industry that can make a greater impact than ours,” he wrote in a column in Hollywood Reporter. “In 2012, annual box-office returns for the top 50 films in Russia topped $900 million. Nearly every one of those movies is a product of Hollywood.
“Our business matters to Russia, our voices are heard in Russia, and the combination of these avenues of influence can absolutely help end these dark days there.”
The Sochi Olympics, the first Winter Games to be held in Russia, are a pet project of Putin. It was his personal appearance and speech — partly in English — at the IOC meeting in Guatemala City in 2007 that helped swing the vote in Sochi’s favour.
IOC officials believe that Putin and Russia have so much at stake in the Sochi Games that they will do everything it takes to make them a global success. Russia is spending more than $50 billion on the Olympics, making them the most expensive in history.
For now, Putin and his government have shown little sign of backing down in the face of criticism over the anti-gay legislation. The dispute comes at a time when Moscow is hosting the world track and field championships. Russia is also set to host the soccer World Cup in 2018.
“Russia must understand that the stronger we are, the more other people aren’t going to like it,” Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko said. “We have a unique country.”
The IOC has been engaged in what officials call “quiet diplomacy” with Russian leaders to make sure the law will not affect the games in the Black Sea resort.
Russian officials have given mixed public messages. On one hand, they say the rights of athletes will be respected during the Olympics. On the other, they say the law will be enforced during the games.
On Friday, IOC President Jacques Rogge said the Russian government had provided written assurances that the law would not impact the games. However, he said the IOC was seeking more clarification because certain elements of the law remained unclear, mainly due to the translation from Russian to English.
“The Olympic Charter is clear,” Rogge said. “A sport is a human right and it should be available to all, regardless of race, sex or sexual orientation.”
Jean-Claude Killy, the former Olympic skiing great from France, heads the IOC’s co-ordination commission for Sochi. He has built a close working relationship with Russian leaders, including Putin, and will be a key figure behind the scenes.
While the Olympic Charter enshrines non-discrimination, it also prohibits athletes from making political gestures during the games. That raises the issue of what would happen if athletes in Sochi wave a small flag or wear a pin or badge in support of gay rights. Could they be sanctioned by the IOC as well as risk prosecution by Russian authorities?
“We are hoping to receive some clarity from the IOC after their discussions with Russian authorities on behalf of all athletes,” U.S. Olympic Committee spokesman Patrick Sandusky said.
The USOC said it is in discussions with the IOC and State Department to ensure American athletes are “safe and secure” at the games.
The Russian law has also raised the question of whether sponsors could pull their support for the games and how U.S. Olympic broadcaster NBC will address the rights dispute.
“The person in the worst position is NBC right now,” said Reputation.com vice chairman Howard Bragman, a longtime gay advocate and media and branding expert. “Traditionally, broadcast partners of the Olympics don’t want to push the controversial aspects of it.”
Mark Lazarus, chairman of NBC Sports Group, said the network would not ignore the issue.
“If it is still their law and it is impacting any part of the Olympics Games, we will make sure that we acknowledge it and recognize it,” he said in a recent meeting with television writers. “We as a company, obviously, believe in equality, opportunity for all. We don’t believe that the games are in the spirit of the law that they’ve passed, and we’re hopeful that the Olympic spirit will win out.”
With files from David Bauder, Sandy Cohen, Eddie Pells, Vladimir Isachenkov and Laura Mills