LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — With the Sochi Olympics just six months away, U.S. President Barack Obama, Stephen Fry and international gay rights group All Out have increased attention on Russia over its new anti-gay law.
The law, which was signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, bans "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" and had already seemed likely to spark protests until the end of the Feb. 7-23 Winter Games. The issue gained more momentum Wednesday as Moscow prepares to host International Olympic Committee leaders for meetings ahead of the athletics world championships starting Saturday.
Obama cancelled a planned September meeting in the city with Putin in a diplomatic rebuke over Russia's harboring of NSA leaker Edward Snowden, having also said in a television interview hours earlier that he had "no patience" with countries which discriminate against gay people.
"I think they (Putin and Russia) understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn't tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently," Obama told host Jay Leno on Tuesday's edition of NBC's "The Tonight Show."
Fry, the British author and actor, went further in an open letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron and IOC President Jacques Rogge, 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 delivered by All Out at Olympic headquarters in Lausanne along with a 320,000-name petition asking the IOC to denounce the law in Russia.
After a one-hour meeting with All Out campaigner Guillaume Bonnet, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told The Associated Press that the Olympic body "cannot enter into political debate," "Our challenge is to change the world through sport and in sport, and that is what we are doing," Adams said. "We very much respect and welcome gay athletes to the games. We will ensure to the best of our ability that people can come and compete and spectate free of discrimination."
Earlier this week, IOC board member Ser Miang Ng — a presidential candidate to succeed Rogge next month — suggested to reporters in London that Olympic officials were engaged in "quiet diplomacy" with the "highest authority" in Russia.
All Out's Bonnet noted that Rogge will soon be in Moscow, where the IOC has a joint board meeting and news conference with the IAAF athletics governing body on Friday. "That is an amazing moment to take a strong stand and ensure the IOC is the guardian of Olympic principles," Bonnet told the AP, after a "positive" meeting. "The Olympics are an amazing opportunity to pressure Putin to remove the anti-gay law that is affecting all Russians' freedom of speech and legitimizing the anti-gay crackdown in Russia."
Whether Russia is willing to compromise could become more apparent Thursday, when sports minister Vitaly Mutko is scheduled to share a news conference platform at a Moscow hotel with Lamine Diack, the IAAF president and longtime IOC member.
Mutko raised concern last week among gay rights advocates with comments that the law would be enforced during the Sochi Games. It allows Russian authorities to impose fines for providing information about the gay community to minors or holding gay pride rallies. Foreign citizens — potentially including athletes — can be arrested, jailed for 15 days and then deported.
Also Wednesday, IAAF deputy general secretary Nick Davies suggested that hosting international events could lead to Russia reconsidering its position on gay people. Seeing people with "alternative lifestyles ... may serve as an impetus for them (Russia) to reconsider their views instead of just living in an isolated society," he said in a statement.
Still, Davies said that although the IAAF is opposed to any discrimination, it would follow the IOC by not raising political issues during its sports events. The IOC's Adams said its diplomatic efforts had worked, notably on gender issues ahead of the London Olympics last year. With Brunei Darussalam, Qatar and Saudi Arabia all sending female athletes, it was the first Summer Games when all teams were represented by men and women.
"It does show the success of our approach to these topics," Adams said.