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Entertainment world leads outcry against Russia

Monday - 8/12/2013, 12:12am  ET

IOC President Jacques Rogge speaks during a press conference with IAAF President Lamine Diack on the day before the World Athletics championships in Moscow, Russia, on Friday, Aug. 9, 2013. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

STEPHEN WILSON
AP Sports Writer

LONDON (AP) -- From Hollywood to Broadway, the entertainment industry is using its star power and financial muscle to raise a storm of protest over the anti-gay legislation in Russia that is battering the image of the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Actor-playwright Harvey Fierstein, British writer-actor Stephen Fry and 'Star Trek' actor George Takei are among those who have publicly condemned the new law, fueling an uproar that is overshadowing preparations for the Feb. 7-23 Olympics.

With stars and activists using their high-profile platform to bring the issue to global attention, the gay rights crackdown in Russia has exploded into a hot-button controversy that is challenging Olympic leaders like no other since the protests over Tibet and human rights before the 2008 Games in Beijing.

President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and former Olympic athletes such as Greg Louganis have also denounced the law that prohibits the spread of "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors.

The law, signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin in June, imposes fines and up to 15 days in prison for violators. Hefty fines are levied for holding gay pride rallies. Foreigners can be deported.

Whether Putin is listening to the outcry is unclear, but the backlash has even triggered calls for a boycott of the games that he was instrumental in securing for Russia.

Also, the souring relations between the U.S. and Russia over National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, Syria, human rights and other issues has ratcheted up the tensions in the buildup to the Olympics. Obama canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin after Russia granted temporary asylum to Snowden.

Obama and Cameron have both ruled out a boycott because it would penalize the athletes who have trained for years to compete. The U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games are widely viewed as failures.

"One of the things I'm really looking forward to is maybe some gay and lesbian athletes bringing home the gold or silver or bronze, which I think would go a long way in rejecting the kinds of attitudes that we're seeing here," Obama said Friday. "If Russia doesn't have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker."

Cameron echoed Obama on Saturday, saying, "I believe we can better challenge prejudice as we attend, rather than boycotting the Winter Olympics."

In the meantime, the International Olympic Committee is coming under pressure to take a tougher line and demand that Russia respect the Olympic Charter's rules against discrimination.

One senior IOC member even suggested taking the games away from Russia if no solution is found.

"They have accepted the words of the Olympic Charter and the host city contract, so either they respect it or we have to say goodbye to them," Gerhard Heiberg of Norway told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Heiberg, who organized the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and chairs the IOC marketing commission, said the IOC should stay out of domestic Russian politics but must be firm on what happens during the Sochi Games.

"This is a very important principle and we have to stick to that," he said. "We cannot start giving in. Let's wait and see. Either they accept or maybe we go somewhere else if worse comes to worse. I don't think it will come to that."

Heiberg acknowledged that the possibility of postponing the games or moving them elsewhere at short notice is remote. It takes years of preparations for a city to stage an Olympics.

With the Sochi Games less than six months away, the issue shows no sign of abating. It was the marquee names in the entertainment world who issued the strongest criticism that brought the issue to a global level.

Fierstein -- winner of Tony Awards for the play Torch Song Trilogy -- wrote an op-ed piece in The New York Times last month saying Putin "has declared war on homosexuals" and calling on world leaders and the International Olympic Committee to demand the retraction of the laws under threat of a boycott.

"Mr. Putin's campaign against lesbian, gay and bisexual people is one of distraction, a strategy of demonizing a minority for political gain straight from the Nazi playbook," Fierstein wrote.

Fry, the British entertainer and activist, posted an open letter this week to Cameron and the IOC comparing Putin's "barbaric, fascist law" to persecution of Jewish people in Nazi Germany.

"An absolute ban on the Russian Winter Olympics of 2014 in Sochi is simply essential," Fry wrote. "At all costs, Putin cannot be seen to have the approval of the civilized world."

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