Discrimination against people of color and LGBT individuals may hurt Russia’s ability to host the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the Winter Olympic Games in 2014, especially as some athletes are saying they won’t play unless the country learns to accept diversity.
This week soccer player Yaya Touré said he was subjected to racist chanting when his team from England, Manchester City, played against CSKA Moscow. Touré, who is from Ivory Coast, said he was “furious,” and both during the game and afterward reported the racist chants from groups of CSKA Moscow fans to the referee.
Sports have long provided opportunities for the world to come together and put aside their differences. But what has been termed Russia’s “rising tide of anti-LGBT violence and discrimination as a result of the country’s laws” have many concerned about issues that may arise during the games.
Though CSKA Moscow officials said the allegations of racism are “unfounded,” Touré said that unless Russia adopts measures to combat the apparent widespread racism in the country, he and other players will boycott the 2018 World Cup.
Piara Powar is the executive director of the organization Football Against Racism in Europe and a member of the FIFA, soccer’s international governing body. He said he supported Touré’s stance to boycott the World Cup. Touré, he said, “is absolutely right in raising the spectre of African players or players of African heritage not going to the 2018 World Cup — and without them there will not be a World Cup in Russia.
“I wouldn’t blame them. In this era, players are the most powerful force and if all the players said they are not going there wouldn’t be a World Cup, or if there was it would be meaningless.”
Kick It Out, an organization that works to challenge discrimination and encourage inclusive practices in the sport, agreed with Touré that CSKA Moscow should be held responsible for the racist acts of its fans.
Historically, the organization has called out Russian fans for racist acts and statements made to non-white and LGBT players, which have included an open letter from a St. Petersburg club’s fan group calling gays “unworthy” of playing in the city. According to Kick It Out, public displays of racism are common among soccer fans in Russia, Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.
In response to Touré’s allegations, CSKA Moscow released a statement saying that after careful examination of the video from the game, “we found no racist insults from fans of CSKA.”
CSKA Moscow officials explained that “in many occasions, especially during attacks on our goal, fans booed and whistled to put pressure on rival players,” but claimed fans booed regardless of the opposing player’s race.
The letter continued in its denial by singling out two white players who had also received jeers. “Why the Ivorian midfielder took it as all being directed at him,” the officials said, “is not clear.”
Seydou Doumbia, a CSKA Moscow player who is also from Ivory Coast, said Touré is “clearly exaggerating” his claims of racism, and said he didn’t hear any racist abuse coming from the team’s fans.
“We’re actually going backwards”
The Manchester City team has formally complained to the UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe, about the racist incident. UEFA has launched an “internal investigation” into the case, which includes determining why the referee did not follow protocol after being reported claims of racist abuse.
The findings are scheduled to be published on Oct. 30.
According to ESPN, referees are supposed to stop the game at the first sign of racism and publicly address the fans and ask them to stop. If the racist behavior continues, the game will be stopped and teams will be sent to their respective locker rooms. If the behavior persists, the game will be cancelled.
CSKA Moscow spokesman Michael Sanadnze said the team was fine with the investigation, insisting “we have nothing to hide, of course, and we have confirmation from the match delegate and the venue director that they themselves didn’t hear anything special.” The team’s statement concluded:
“Whilst the alleged incidents are still under investigation by the relevant authorities it is worth restating that all stakeholders in Russian football have made it clear that there is absolutely no place for any type of racial discrimination or abuse in our game.
“What is clear is that football is uniquely positioned to educate fans in combating this global issue. The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia, in particular, can act as a catalyst to positively change the mindsets and behaviour across all involved in Russian Football over the next four years.
“The Fans Laws, that was recently passed into legislation, shows Russia’s determination to eradicate the problem for good. The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia will be a festival of football where talented athletes from every corner of the globe will be celebrated.”
But U.K. Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Maria Miller expressed concern over the incident, saying, “When countries like Russia are going to be very shortly hosting the World Cup, it’s important we know a tough line is going to be taken.”
Norwich City manager Chris Hughton, who was allegedly subjected to racist abuse on Twitter this month, agreed and said he didn’t think UEFA was doing enough to stop racism — because it’s still happening.
He said officials need to put themselves in the position of those who are being targeted if they really want to take the issue seriously. “Penalties these days seem to be fines, fines are very easily paid, particularly by the bigger clubs. Do we need harsher penalties? Absolutely we do … but UEFA have a real good opportunity to act.”
If UEFA finds racist behavior did occur at the game, CSKA Moscow may be forced to close its stadium for a future game — partially for the first offense and a full closure for the second offence, along with a fine of about $69,000.
But former soccer player Leroy Rosenior, who works with the organization Show Racism the Red Card, said the players’ threats to boycott the World Cup may prompt officials to dispel a harsher penalty.
“I think that it’s got to a point now where, when we saw the reaction of CSKA who didn’t even recognise that there was a problem, people are starting to think that this isn’t something that is stagnating. We’re actually going backwards,” he said.
“Boycotting the World Cup, which is sanctioned by FIFA, is a threat that maybe needs to be a serious threat because you want the authorities to come up with something off the back of a threat which will actually get something positive happening.”
“No second chances to do what’s right”
While Russia has five years before it hosts the World Cup, the nation only has a few months before it hosts the Winter Olympics in February 2014, which some spectators and athletes have threatened to boycott unless the nation reverses its anti-gay laws.
Though Russian officials have insisted that people of “nontraditional sexual orientation” are not prohibited from competing in the games, the Russian government noted that in accordance with local law, anyone who publicly “advocates” on behalf of LGBT persons or demonstrates homosexual behavior will be fined, imprisoned and possibly deported.
The International Olympic Committee has tried to reassure athletes they will be safe at the Games, but boycott movements have grown in several countries including Canada and the United States.
In an op-ed piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Ellen J. Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide at William Mitchell College of Law, encouraged the U.S. to boycott the 2014 Olympics, comparing them to the 1936 Olympics in then-Nazi Germany. Kennedy said that for those games, while there were calls for the U.S. and other nations to boycott the Olympics because Jews and other minorities were excluded from most areas of public life, the boycott never happened.
Kennedy wrote, “By rejecting a boycott, the United States and other democracies failed to take a stand that might have strengthened international resistance to Nazi tyranny.” Just like the Nazis did to the Jews, Kennedy says “Russia’s new laws give a green light for hate and aggression against that country’s LGBT community.”
“Although the United States failed to take a stand in 1936, there was a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the United States was ultimately joined in that boycott by countries including Japan, West Germany, China, the Philippines, Argentina and Canada.
“If Russia’s laws today targeted Jews, as the Nazi laws did in Germany in 1936, I hope we would support a boycott. But is there any difference between targeting Jews and targeting gays? We don’t often get a second chance to do what’s right. We have a second chance with the Sochi Olympics.”
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