Queer athletes ‘terrified’ by Russia lining up to host Arctic Winter Games. And, well, who can blame them?

Arctic Winter Games 2018

The prospect of Russia hosting the Arctic Winter Games is causing “extremely strong concerns” among LGBT+ athletes and activists.

Founded in 1969, the Arctic Winter Games is a biennial circumpolar sport competition for Northern and Arctic athletes, and the event promotes “athletic competition, cultural exchange and social interaction” by combining “sports that enjoy worldwide popularity” with “northern and traditional” Indigenous events.

Athletes from regions in the United States, Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia participate in the games, but Russia has never hosted.

Earlier this month, the Arctic Winter Games announced that the Yamalo-Nenets contingent in northwestern Siberia, central Russia, is set to host the games in 2026.

According to CBC, if the country’s bid is finalised, activists fear LGBT+ athletes will face a “terrifying” dilemma.

Chelsea Thacker, executive director of the Rainbow Coalition of Yellowknife, said: “Instantly I was concerned because in recent years, and from a long historical context, there has been heavy discrimination and violence against LGBTQ2S people in Russia.”

She added: “I can’t imagine… athletes who are forced to now choose safety over something that they have as a career, or as a passion, or as something that is really important to them.”

According to the Arctic Winter Games diversity policy, the international committee promises to “champion the emotional and physical needs and safety of all participants”, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

Ian Legaree, technical director of the Arctic Winter Games International Committee, said: “The diversity policy is an important part of what the Arctic Winter Games are all about.”

Yamalo-Nenets must still submit a final bid, and part of that process is agreeing to policies which will protect all participants.

The Arctic Winter Games could force queer athletes to go to Russia, where anti-LGBT+ sentiment in on the rise.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has consistently taken aim at the country’s LGBT+ community, stirring up hatred among his most loyal supporters, members of the Russian Orthodox Church, and leaving LGBT+ rights groups outside of Russia alarmed in the ways he is targeting queer people.

In 2013, Putin oversaw the introduction of the country’s infamous “gay propaganda” law, which bans so-called “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” among minors.

Human rights monitors say that the law has been widely exploited in Russia to clamp down on freedom of expression for LGBT+ people, and is often weaponised where groups attempt to organise or protest.

During the recent constitutional referendum which allowed Putin to extend his rule beyond the 2024 cut-off, Putin’s campaign relied heavily on taking away LGBT+ rights, from effectively erasing trans people from existence to a constitutional ban on marriage equality.