UK TV presenter Clare Balding
UK TV presenter Clare Balding Independent News & Media

Calls for ban on Russian Olympics over homophobic laws

TELEVISION presenter Clare Balding is being urged to speak out against the rising tide of homophobic persecution in Russia ahead of hosting the BBC's coverage of the Winter Olympics there.

Ms Balding, who is in a civil partnership and is one of the most prominent and admired LGBT figures in the UK media, will anchor up to 100 hours of programming from Sochi next February.

A coalition of international figures including sports stars, actors and politicians have urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to strip Russia of the right to hold the Games amid a wave of attacks on gay young men across the country and repressive legislation.

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said it was right that Ms Balding attend but urged her to speak out against the worsening situation in the host country.

"The best way that Clare Balding can show solidarity with gay Russians is by presenting the BBC coverage as an openly lesbian woman and by publicly stating her opposition to the escalating homophobic repression and violence. Her presence will be a direct challenge to the Russian Government which is far more effective than staying away," he said.

The BBC confirmed that Ms Balding would be presenting from Russia.

This will be the broadcaster's fourth Winter Olympics having already fronted coverage from Salt Lake City, Turin and Vancouver. The 42-year-old presenter was awarded a Bafta for her presentation of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic coverage.

She and her partner, fellow broadcaster Alice Arnold, last month attended a Downing Street reception to celebrate the passing of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. Ms Balding's management did not respond when asked to comment on the controversy surrounding the Games.

As well as being a judge on the Independent on Sunday's Pink List of prominent gay people Ms Balding recently spoke up against the "invisibility" of women's sport in the media.

In 2010 she was at the centre of controversy when the Press Complaints Commission upheld her complaint against the critic AA Gill who referred to her in a "demeaning and gratuitous way" by calling her a "dyke on a bike" in a television review. The BBC apologised in June for an item on Colin Murray's Radio 5 show in which comedian Bob Mills was asked to "turn around" Ms Balding.

Mounting international fury at the Russian hosting of this winter's sporting bonanza was further fuelled this week when actor Stephen Fry wrote to the head of the IOC Jacques Rogge and Prime Minister David Cameron demanding they back a ban on the Games.

Mr Fry compared the event to the 1936 Berlin Olympics which took place amid the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany.

His intervention followed the passage of a law in Russia's lower house of Parliament, the Duma, imposing fines for those who spread information about homosexuality and comments by sports minister Vitaly Mutk who said that those who spread gay "propaganda" would be punished.

This contravened assurances received by the IOC that openly gay athletes, coaches or fans would not be targeted. Since then 50,000 people have signed an online petition through demanding the Games be relocated to 2010 host Vancouver in Canada.

Actor and Gay rights advocate George Takei who played Sulu in the original Star Trek, added his name to the growing list of opponents. "I personally will be beating this particular drum loudly, as will many other LGBT actors, activists and allies. Trust me, if you are a corporate brand, you do not want to be associated with the Sochi Olympics," he said.

Shadow Foreign and Commonwealth Minister for Human Rights, Kerry McCarthy, said the UK should raise the issue of Russia's hosting the games at next month's G20 meeting in St Petersburg. Labour MP Chris Bryant has called on gay and lesbian bars to boycott Russian vodka and urged the Archbishop of Canterbury to Russian Patriarch condemning anti-gay violence and repression.

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