Illustration by Bloomberg View
Illustration by Bloomberg View

The International Olympic Committee is letting Russia off far too easy. Russia has argued nonsensically that its new anti-gay law is in keeping with the Olympic Charter’s protections against discrimination, and the IOC simply has accepted it.

The law, approved by the Russian parliament in June, prohibits “propaganda” in support of “nontraditional” sexual relationships. This means virtually any expression of homosexual love, or approval of or information about homosexuality. Russians face fines; foreigners, deportation. But this is not discrimination, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak claimed in a letter to the IOC, because the law applies equally to gay and straight people.

The IOC said this incredible explanation amounts to “strong written reassurances from the Russian government that everyone will be welcome at the Games in Sochi regardless of their sexual orientation.”

That’s not the issue, though. Being gay hasn’t been illegal in Russia since 1993 -- even if being openly gay is increasingly dangerous. The point is that tolerating homosexuality as long as it is closeted is not a policy of fairness. And, as the sixth fundamental principle of Olympism has it: “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.”

In their desire to get on with preparations for the games, IOC officials may think it best to downplay their ability to influence the politics of host countries. But given that governments often host the Olympics in order to improve their reputations, the committee wields considerable power.

IOC pressure on South Korea’s military dictatorship helped bring about democratic elections before the 1988 Summer Games in Seoul. Ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the IOC pressed China to drop its law requiring foreign journalists to get government permission before interviewing Chinese citizens.

Now, the IOC should be telling Russia to revoke its anti-gay law in order to conform with the Olympic Charter and remain the host of the Winter Games. As the committee has so far shown no such inclination, sponsors of the Olympics and television networks that plan to cover the event ought to push. Otherwise, come February, they may find themselves in an embarrassing mess.

The Russians already have used their new law to deport Dutch filmmakers for trying to make a documentary about gay rights in Russia. If openly gay New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup talks about a boyfriend in an interview with NBC, will that crew be deported as well? To avoid the risk, will broadcasters evade the whole subject of homosexuality? That would make them complicit in Russia’s discriminatory policies.

Unless the IOC acts, sponsors such as Coca-Cola Co., McDonald’s Corp. and Visa Inc. will be tied to an officially anti-gay Olympics.

Russian authorities have said they will enforce the law on the games’ participants and spectators. Perhaps they will put up with female Russian athletes smooching on the medal dais, as they did at the recent IAAF World Athletics Championships in Moscow. Or with rainbows painted on Swedish competitors’ fingernails. Perhaps they will not.

In any case, it’s not enough to carve out a discrimination-free zone for the Olympic village. The law should be revoked altogether.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.