Once and for all, Rogge resists taking moral stance on Russia's anti-gay laws

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BUENOS AIRES – This was Jacques Rogge’s final press conference as head of the International Olympic Committee, an organization that fancies itself as having a global role that can reach beyond fun and games.

Rogge made it very clear Wednesday, as he nears the end of his 12-year IOC presidency, just how limited a role that really is.

His predecessor, Juan Antonio Samaranch, lobbied for the IOC to win the Nobel Peace Prize.  The IOC leadership shows up occasionally at the United Nations to talk about an Olympic Truce, an idea that always has been more myth than fact, even at the Games of ancient Greece.  IOC leaders always love being received by heads of state, whether or not those presidents or chairmen are dictators.

But Rogge simply will not use the Olympic Charter’s professed tenets about inclusiveness and non-discrimination to make even a strong statement about the Russian anti-gay legislation that has made the upcoming Sochi Winter Olympics – and by extension the IOC – a target of criticism in many countries.

“We have clearly on various occasions expressed our view on situations in countries, but we are restricted in our power and our actions by the fact we are guests of a sovereign country in which we hold the Games,” Rogge said Wednesday.

The law in question allows Russia to arrest and prosecute anyone who engages in “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”  Whether that bans just Gay Pride parades or can apply to wearing a rainbow pin is unclear.

No one would dispute the IOC lacks the power to change legislation in a nation, Olympic host or not.  As one senior IOC member joked, “The aircraft carrier we were going to use to attack Russia is stuck in Lausanne.”

That does not mean the IOC is limited in using its presumed moral authority to take a strong stand on an issue of human rights, no matter which Olympic host country it might offend.

For Rogge, a 71-year-old Belgian, and the IOC, it is good enough that Russia promise not to enforce its law on athletes and spectators during the Winter Games.

What happens to Russia’s LGBT population after that is not something the IOC worries about.

And, despite the IOC’s feelings about how all will be for the best in the best of all possible Olympic and Paralympic worlds, it also remains unclear what will happen to athletes and spectators who make public displays of support for the LGBT community or of disgust for the Russian law.

“Are you convinced this solution is the right one?” Rogge was asked at the press conference.  “Is there nothing more the IOC can be doing or should be doing to make this law not an issue for these Games?  Is there more you are discussing with them?’

Rogge’s reply:

``We have received very strong oral and written reassurances about the fact that the Russian Federation will respect the Olympic Charter and that no negative effect will occur for people attending the games or participating in the Games. . .the International Olympic Committee cannot be expected to have an influence on sovereign affairs of a country.”

It had seemed stunning when Rogge expressed his “disappointment” in Russian pole vault champion Yelena Isinbayeva’s homophobic comments during last month’s World Championships in Russia.  For a man who has circumspection in his DNA, that was a thorough rip of Isinbayeva, whom Rogge had made a Youth Olympic Games ambassador in 2010.  She also is honorary mayor of a Sochi Olympic village.

“We have a true champion in Yelena, a true role model for young people,” Rogge said in 2010.

Rogge’s successor is to be chosen Tuesday.  It looks as if whoever he is – all six candidates are men – will inherit the hot potato of whether the IOC should let Isinbayeva continue as an ambassador.

“This is something we will consider in due time,” Rogge said.

The end of the Sochi Olympics and Paralympics would seem amorally convenient.

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