Whatever happens with the Sochi Games, the problem of compelling a country's compliance with the Olympic human-rights principles is more complicated than a single sports event. The Olympic charter prohibits "any form of discrimination... on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise." Clearly the Russians don't recognize that a growing number of countries view LGBT rights as falling into the "otherwise" category.
So compliance with this requirement for Olympic membership will likely take a few decades to get, in Russia's case. Why? Because it involves dislodging an ultraconservative brand of religion that is presently resuming total power in Russia -- the kind of power that the Russian Orthodox church enjoyed before the Bolshevik Revolution. So it isn't going to be an issue of just LGBTs. It's clear, from statements by church leaders that Putin listens to, that Russian Orthodoxy also intends to oppress liberated women, political dissenters, and followers of non-Orthodox religions.
We can know what the drill is going to be, from looking at how long it took the sports world to confront South African apartheid. This ruthless division of an entire society on the basis of race was established in 1948, on a foundation of racist doctrine taught by South Africa's state religion, the whites-only Dutch Reformed Church. At first the sports authorities of the world -- both national and international bodies (including the IOC and IAAF) -- tolerated apartheid. They were okay with sending all-white teams to play in South Africa, and letting South Africa send all-white teams around the world.
It took over 20 years of consciousness-raising, with individual sports like table tennis beginning to break ranks and bar South African participation, before the IOC and the IAAF finally got up some courage of their convictions. First the IOC barred South Africa from Olympic competition in 1964. The IAAF didn't expel South Africa from its own international-athletics sphere until 1970. Next, it took a revolution in South Africa, and removal of the Dutch Reformed Church from state power, before apartheid finally disappeared in 1996. In total, it took 48 years of struggle to get sports compliance from a single nation.
Then there is the sadder and long-festering problem with fundamentalist Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia who violate women's rights. I say "sadder" because international sports bodies have been way more wishy-washy towards these ultraconservative Islamic countries, backing away from barring them from participation till they respect the Olympic charter. Here again we have the problem of an oppressive state religion dictating sports policy. Here too, little courage has been shown by so-called democracies in the Olympic movement, because of oil politics.
The IOC did finally get up enough gumption to use diplomatic pressures on Saudi Arabia. Result: the Saudi monarchy sent two women athletes to the London Olympics. But today the wholesale oppression of women in Saudi Arabia continues, as it does in some other Muslim countries as well. Not to mention these countries' ongoing inhumane treatment -- including public executions -- of LGBTs, political dissidents and people who don't bend to the ruling brand of Islam.
Meanwhile, there's the all-time embarrassing example of how sports bodies of the "democratic world" went to the 1936 Berlin Olympics pretending that Nazi Germany wasn't run by a new state religion based on a "pure Aryan" form of Christianity.
This Nazi religion had no room for Jews. Not only was Hitler already open about his anti-Semitic beliefs in his public statements and policy book Mein Kampf, but most German Protestant leaders (representing two-thirds of the country's population) were already open about their intent, writing Judaism out of their new edition of the Bible, and not speaking out against Nazi laws that deprived Jews of civil rights. And most German Catholic authorities were already going along, as was the Vatican, which signed a concordat with Hitler.
We have to wonder how different the course of mid-20th-century European history might have been if "democracy" had had the courage and foresight to cut Germany out of Olympic privileges long before the Berlin Games.
But at that point, the U.S. -- along with Britain and others -- was tolerating the Nazis because our own brand of national religion misguided us into wishful thinking that Hitler would be a convenient bulwark against the Soviet Union's "godless communism." So we went to Berlin to take on Hitler's "pure Aryan" team. And we won a few medals. But it took World War II, the fall of Naziism, and the deaths of maybe 50 million people across Europe (conservative estimate, including civilians) before Germany was ready to abandon that religion that had marched it to war. Only then was Germany ready for the wholehearted acceptance of Olympic ideals that it demonstrates today.
What's the Future?
So it's great that President Obama and other high-profile people are going to bat for the "otherwise" cause of LGBT people at Sochi. But no bones about it: this Sochi struggle isn't just about homophobia as a single isolated quirk. It's about a state religion that sets Russia into serious violation of the Olympic charter in every category of discrimination.
Unlike apartheid South Africa, which found itself more and more isolated politically as time went on, Russia is shaping hostile-to-the-West alliances with powerful Middle Eastern countries like Iran. It will be interesting to see how long these truces last, given the potential for flash-bang religious disagreements between Orthodox and Islamic traditions. If Iran beheads some "blaspheming" Russian tourist or journalist, will Moscow put up with it?
Meanwhile -- whether or not the Sochi Games are boycotted, or moved to some other country -- religion-driven Russia has the will and capacity to put up a long, hard fight. It remains to be seen how much of an appetite our side has for that fight.