Winter Olympics: Lord Coe speaks out on workers’ welfare and gay rights at Sochi Games

Sport can be agent for change in Russian society, Britain’s Olympic chairman tells Janet Tappin Coelho in Belo Horizonte

As work on the Russian Olympic Stadium for the 2014 Winter Games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi draws to a close, Sebastian Coe has added his voice to the growing controversy over the exploitation of the migrant workers who have helped to build the stadium and associated buildings.

“Welfare of the workers is paramount. Even while we want sporting events to be delivered to the very highest standard and it’s very important to the Games that the infrastructure is put in to a very high standard, workers’ welfare must be recognised and we have to create a climate where this is seen to be very important,” the chairman of the British Olympic Association told The Independent.

Lord Coe raised his concerns during the announcement in Brazil this week that the BOA will be setting up Team GB’s training camp in the city of Belo Horizonte in the southern central state of Minas Gerais in the run-up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

By signalling that those in charge of the world’s sporting events have a joint duty of care and responsibility to ensure that no excuses or exceptions are used to undermine the welfare, health and safety of construction labourers, Coe becomes one of the most senior sporting figures to speak out on the subject.

Charges of systematic abuse of migrant workers and violations of their human rights have dogged the preparations for the Winter Games since the allegations emerged in a report this month by an international rights group.

The Russian authorities are accused by Human Rights Watch of arresting and holding migrant workers in “arbitrary and inhumane conditions” based on spurious breaches of employment regulations.

An estimated 16,000 foreign labourers have been working on the construction of the Olympic facilities in the host city. Human Rights Watch says many workers reported employers confiscating their passports, cheating them out of wages and demanding 12-hour shifts with few days off.

Jane Buchanan, the international non-governmental organisation’s Europe and Central Asia associate director, said: “It’s outrageous for the migrant workers who helped to build Sochi’s shiny new Olympic venues to be herded into detention and deported.”

In response to the accusations, Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, claimed city officials were unaware of any mass abuse of labour law. “I would like to say that not a single complaint to the labour inspection or to the mayor’s office was left unanswered. I would tell you that there were two complaints to the mayor’s office during all this time,” he said.

The denial comes as Ekaterina Samutsevich, one of the three members of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock protest group, called for the boycott of the Winter Olympics over the crackdown on gay rights and the draconian decree passed by President Vladimir Putin banning demonstrations and rallies around the time of the Games in February 2014.

But Lord Coe described the idea of a boycott as “ludicrous”, saying that the only people it would hurt would be the athletes.

In 1980 Coe was one of the 170 British athletes, the largest Western European contingent, who defied political calls to boycott the Moscow Olympics in protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. He went on to win the 1500m gold medal and 33 years later remained clear in justifying his decision to participate.

“It is not unusual for the Games to attract all sorts of people and causes. If you go back over the history of the Games you will find that this has been the case. I will go to my grave knowing that sport gets to places that other organisations don’t get to. It is more potent than politics and any other activity.

“It is also worth noting that if the Olympics weren’t being held in Russia we wouldn’t even be having this discussion, and so this says something about how the Olympics can be a catalyst for change. The broader point is that sport has never been an inhibitor to social change but has normally advanced it,” said Coe, who is widely tipped to be the next president of the International Association of Athletics Federations. 

He revealed the national Olympic committees and the international federations are waiting on the imminent release of the International Olympic Committee’s guidelines on what athletes can do during the Games. The regulations are normally issued a few months before each Games takes place.

“We know that the IOC is continuing to look into the [gay rights] matter with the Russian government and as we get closer to the Games there will be a point where they will provide us with additional information on the law, the Olympic charter and how the two will sit next to each other,” explained Coe, the holder of four Olympic medals.

At the end of last summer the IOC received strong written assurances from Dmitry Kozak, Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, that there would be no discrimination against gay people during the Games as it would be “incompatible with belonging to the Olympic movement”. However, Russia’s anti-gay legislation remains in place.

“The IOC guidance letter will help people to understand what they can and cannot do. It will remind athletes of the framework of the Olympic Games and that there are rules in place. It’s important to say that the Games are not necessarily the platform to express yourself and to demonstrate and that the Games should remain free of any kind of demonstration,” said Emmanuelle Moreau, the IOC’s head of media relations.

As there will be no ban on blogging or social networking, British team organisers are hoping that its Winter Olympic athletes will be posting up multiple images of medals won at the Sochi Games.

“We have a stronger and deeper winter team than we have ever had and I think there is a very good chance that this could be [Britain’s] most successful winter team,” said Coe, who praised the expertise of Team GB’s coaches and team leaders.

“We haven’t set a target on the number of medals, but what I can say is that we do have some good medal chances. Ultimately, the credit has to go to UK Sport for investing in and developing these athletes, and for getting them into this position over the last six to eight years.”

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