The International Olympic Committee has the authority to do Vladimir Putin’s dirty work for him. The NY Times reports the IOC charter prohibits political expression by athletes.
The issue is coming into focus after Frank Bruni proposed a silent rainbow flag protest by American athletes — or any athletes — during an Olympic ceremony.
There is no doubt that, while it is possible the Russian government might try to go after openly gay or lesbian athletes — there are very few of them, after all — they could not possibly go after every straight athlete who expressed support for gay equality, which would be a clear violation of the law prohibiting propaganda. While the Russian people clearly retain much of the world’s remaining prejudices about homosexuality, it’s hard to think they would have the stomach to really punish thousands of Olympic athletes for simply articulating — possibly silently — a widespread political opinion. Let’s not forget that these athletes are overwhelmingly young, and well within the demographic of greatest support for gay equality.
The IOC, though, has much greater control over the athletes than the Russian police. They have their political expression rule for their own administrative reasons, and the athletes would obviously have to take a public pronouncement seriously.
This would be collaboration of the ugliest sort. I don’t think there is any reason to believe the IOC would actually do this. But if they do, I think it’s pretty likely Putin would greet the news as a public relations victory and an enormous gesture of assistance.