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12 August 2013

Is Stephen Fry right about Russia and the Winter Olympics?

In an open letter to David Cameron, Sebastian Coe and others, Stephen Fry has called for a “absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014”. His argument is that by turning a blind eye to the persecution of homosexuals in Russia, the Olympic movement would be repeating the mistakes of 1936:

  • “The Olympic movement at that time paid precisely no attention to this evil and proceeded with the notorious Berlin Olympiad, which provided a stage for a gleeful Führer and only increased his status at home and abroad. It gave him confidence. All historians are agreed on that. What he did with that confidence we all know.”

There was a swift and brutal reaction to Fry’s letter – not from Vladimir Putin, but Andrew Pierce of the Daily Mail:

  • “As one gay man to another, I say to Stephen Fry: You should be ashamed for outrageously distorting the facts surrounding the Holocaust. The truth is that Putin is not herding gays into trains and transporting them to concentration camps to be used as slave labour before being gassed to death when they were no longer capable of any meaningful work.”

This is unfair. The comparison that Fry actually made was between Putin’s Russia today and Hitler’s Germany in 1936. The anti-Jewish measures enacted up until that point were deeply unpleasant, but a mere shadow of the horror that was to come.

This is Fry’s description of the situation in Germany at the time of the Berlin Olympics:

  • “[Hitler] banned Jews from academic tenure or public office, he made sure that the police turned a blind eye to any beatings, thefts or humiliations afflicted on them, he burned and banned books written by them. He claimed they ‘polluted’ the purity and tradition of what it was to be German, that they were a threat to the state, to the children and the future of the Reich.”

And this is the parallel he draws with the present-day plight of homosexuals in Russia:

  • “Beatings, murders and humiliations are ignored by the police. Any defence or sane discussion of homosexuality is against the law. Any statement, for example, that Tchaikovsky was gay and that his art and life reflects this sexuality and are an inspiration to other gay artists would be punishable by imprisonment.”

So, despite what his critics might say, Fry is not comparing the Holocaust to a ban on gay pride marches. He is comparing harassment and discrimination with harassment and discrimination. That, of course, still raises questions about whether the scale and intensity of the two situations can be legitimately equated. One also has to doubt whether Russia in 2013 is really on the same trajectory as Germany in 1936.

Then again, the moral case for action doesn't depend on whether the present situation for gays in Russia is as bad as it was for German Jews in 1936, but whether it is bad enough

That, of course, would require one to draw some kind of line – and, having done so, to consider how it might apply to other cases. For instance, Andrew Pierce raises the matter of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when things in China were also bad enough for the enemies of the Communist government (and still are). Furthermore, if Russia is to be ruled out as an Olympic host as a result of laws which discriminate against homosexuals, then what about those countries in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in which homosexuality is banned altogether?

Quoting from the Olympic Charter, Fry calls upon the Olympic movement to act upon its stated principles. The following seems especially relevant:

  • “Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement.”

Yet if such a principle is to be applied at all, it must be applied consistently.


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