What would Putin do?

It’s a big few years for sport in Russia. In a couple of weeks Moscow hosts the World Athletics Championships. Next January the Winter Olympics bandwagon stops in Sochi. And in 2018 FIFA’s World Cup peppers the country with 32 national teams playing the world’s most popular sport.

Meanwhile, let’s look at some of the laws Russia has recently passed.

July 3: Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a law that means if you — gay or straight, single or married or civilly partnered — live in a country with any form of marriage equality, you will not be allowed to adopt a Russian-born child.

June 20: Putin signed a law allowing the Russian government to arrest, hold and then expel any foreign tourist who is gay or “pro-gay”. You could reasonably expect “pro-gay” activities to include showing the rainbow flag, or arguing for equality — very much considered acts of free speech in modern western democracies.

Earlier in June: Putin classified “homosexual propaganda” as pornography. A teacher in Russia must not state that homosexuality is OK and normal, for example. Worse than that: neither can a judge. Spouting such “propaganda” can lead to arrest and a fine.

Buzzfeed’s 36 Photos From Russia That Everyone Needs To See shows you in graphic detail what’s happening in that country as a result.

The heads of the IAAF, the IOC and FIFA should be worried. How does Russia’s behaviour match all the fine words on equality and anti-discrimination coming from these organisations? It doesn’t, plainly. And what are they going to do about it? Nothing, of course.

I’ve written before and at length about homophobia in football: FIFA blusters much and achieves zip; I don’t want to re-re-rehash that again here. In a statement the IOC claims the new laws won’t affect the Winter Olympics, saying “athletes of all orientations will be welcome at the Games.” There’s a petition calling for a stupid boycott: don’t sign it.

The IAAF, meanwhile, has been silent.

You won’t find any mention on the IAAF’s website of Russia’s new crackdown. The only gay is Tyson Gay. Google finds no mention on the site of the word “homosexual”, and only one instance of “sexuality”, used in an article from 2000 about an athlete who appeared naked in an advert.

Searching for Sexuality on iaaf.org

Now, I happen to have a copy of the IAAF Constitution to hand, along with its official Code of Ethics (these are all available on the IAAF website). In Article 3 of the IAAF Constitution, about the objectives of the IAAF, clauses 3.3 and 3.4 say:

3.3. To encourage participation in Athletics at all levels throughout the world regardless of age, gender or race.

3.4. To strive to ensure that no gender, race, religious, political or other kind of unfair discrimination exists, continues to exist, or is allowed to develop in Athletics in any form, and that all may participate in Athletics regardless of their gender, race, religious or political views or any other irrelevant factor.

Here’s the Code of Ethics, part A.1 (this applies to all IAAF officials):

A.1. No discrimination on the basis of gender, race, religion, political opinion or other such ground will be tolerated in Athletics, including in the IAAF Council, Committees, Commissions and other elected or appointed organs of the IAAF.

And here’s the IAAF Constitution again, under “Rights and obligations of members”, Article 4, clause 8(a):

4.8. Members shall have the following obligations of Membership:

4.8.(a) to respect and further the Objects set out in Article 3;

It strikes me that Russia is, by enacting these new laws, very much in breach of clause 4.8(a) of the IAAF Constitution. I’d also say that any IAAF official who through action or inaction allows discrimination on the basis of sexuality to take place in or around the World Athletics Championships is in violation of the IAAF Code of Ethics.

I tweeted @iaaforg earlier today:

Any response? Nope.

Of course, other countries in the IAAF already discriminate against LGBT people, and the get-out qualifiers “unfair” and “irrelevant” in clause 3.4 are no doubt the ones those countries underline in green ink as justification. But it is rare for a country to reintroduce discrimination it has already shed: and, in any case, the code of ethics to which all IAAF officials must abide has no such qualifier.

I’d like to see two things happen.

Firstly, and most importantly, I want to see LGBT athletes demonstrate publicly, confidently and repeatedly that they are not afraid to be out in elite sport, on and off the field. Visibility, visibility, visibility. It’s visibility that has brought equal marriage rights in England and Wales, and it’s visibility that will change sport — that is changing sport.

Secondly, I want to see straight athletes show their support for LGBT people — and do so on camera, in the stadium. Overtly or covertly, I don’t mind. Painted nails, rainbow pins, messages in interviews, signs to camera when lined up for their events, carrying rainbow flags on laps of honour, anything.

What would the IAAF officials do?

What would Putin do?

Coming soon: Disunited

footballerA couple of years ago I wrote a short story — very short, only about 1500 words — set in the dusty office of the manager of a football club. A young, talented member of his team came to him with a confession: he was gay. More than that, he wanted to come out publicly. The story played out as an exchange between the two, with a not particularly twisty twist at the end.

It was inspired by the then-recent decision of FIFA, football’s world governing body, to award the 2018 World Cup to Russia and the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. For an organisation allegedly committed to stamping out discrimination in the game, the decision was and remains incomprehensible: homosexuality is barely tolerated in much of Russia, and is illegal in Qatar. It’s as if FIFA had awarded the World Cup of 1978 to South Africa, at the height of apartheid.

The player in my short story looked ahead to 2022, when he might be out, happily married, with kids — and playing for England. Would the FA not allow him to be selected, to avoid offending the hosts? Would Qatar turn him away at the airport, along with any other players that might be out by then? Of course not.

The authorities in Qatar could surely do nothing but let him and the others play, or risk the condemnation of the international community. They would have to let in his partner, if he had one. Any other action would be intolerable, and worthy of a boycott.

I’m sure that by 2022 this won’t be a hypothetical scenario. I’m convinced that there’ll be out gay male players in the top football leagues around the world, and it’s more likely than not that at least one of the 32 national teams in Qatar will field an out gay player.

But currently there are none at the highest levels of the game, nationally or internationally: the only out gay man currently playing is Anton Hysén, in the third division of the Swedish league. In Britain, the only out gay player so far has been Justin Fashanu, twenty years ago, in a different world.

I don’t believe this will remain the case for long. I think that within a year — possibly this summer, between seasons — someone playing in the English or Scottish Premier League will come out. I don’t know who, I don’t know where — I have no inside information — it just feels as if it will happen. A momentum seems to be building, almost as if a growing number of people are being let into a secret and then voicing their support without naming names. Eventually there’ll be a critical mass, a tipping point, and the unnamed player or players will come out. Perhaps: I don’t know.

But this gut feeling is why I’m in a hurry to publish my next book.

Called Disunited, it’s set at a football club I don’t name, in a city I don’t name, in the present day. It’s about a newly signed rising star of the game called Danny Prince who becomes — reluctantly — the first British player to come out since Fashanu. It’s my usual mix of humour and seriousness, and — in case you might be put off — it’s not a football book, full of arcane gags about the offside rule. The first top footballer who comes out in the UK today will face many struggles on and off the pitch — dealing with his teammates, his manager, and not least his supporters — but the story’s about universal human worries: loyalty, honesty, risks, relationships, and remaining true to yourself.

The book will be out in early February, which happily coincides with the Football v Homophobia month of action and LGBT history month. I’ll publish a sneak preview here when it’s available.

Or maybe a real-life player will beat me to it…