Yes, let the Sochi games begin … but which games? The real Sochi games began long before the first Olympic torch was lit for the torch relay leading to the Opening Ceremony on February 7th. Considered by many to be a fiasco, it appears that the torch relay could be a portent of things to come. En route, the Olympic flame went out more than once and in one case was relit by a security guard with his Zippo lighter. One of the carriers even set himself on fire. Sadly, international politics have eclipsed the very reason for holding the Olympic Games – using sports to promote peaceful and friendly interaction among competing countries.
Leonid Bershidsky, a Moscow editor and novelist writes that “In a country where government contracts are typically vehicles for private enrichment, allegations and finger-pointing inevitably ensued. Inflated cost estimates, kickbacks and subpar work quality are among the reasons the Sochi Olympics have become the most expensive in history, with a $US45 billion price tag, according to Russia’s ministry for regional development.” He also says that the torches contractor Krasmash sold the Olympic committee for nearly $400 apiece were “a simple, flimsy device, assembled any which way.” A blogger reported in October that the torches were assembled by students hired online by a Krasmash subcontractor.
Widespread public awareness of the political games began with the Russian government passing a stringent anti-gay law after they were selected as the site for the 2014 Winter Games. A Pride House for LGBT athletes has been banned and despite tentative assurances from some Russian politicians that athletes will be safe, many question whether or not the Russian government can or will want to fully deliver on this promise. As the saying goes, talk is cheap; it’s actions that reveal true agendas. And the deadly terrorist bombings in Volgograd, even though some 600 miles from Sochi, have prompted the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning to Americans planning to attend the Games.
The Russian government’s past actions, most recently the extended imprisonment of members of the Russian feminist punk rock protest group Pussy Riot, show that the government is certainly not above taking harsh action to silence any type of protest. This means there is a very real question of safety for both athletes and spectators – those who will openly self-identify as gay and those allies who will openly support them.
Back in September the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the governing body of the Olympic Games, announced it was “fully satisfied” that Russia’s shocking anti-gay propaganda law doesn’t violate the Principle 6 anti-discrimination guarantees of the Olympic charter. Thankfully, the lesson learned from the U.S. boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympics in 1980 to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was that the athletes were the only ones who paid the price for Russia’s aggression. Fortunately for the current athletes and their families who have devoted years and untold dollars to reach the pinnacle of their sport, the early calls for an Olympic boycott in Sochi fell through.
To bring attention to the IOC’s almost unbelievable abandonment of its principles to please the Russian government, however, a number of organizations have stepped up to the plate. HRC launched its “Love Conquers Hate” campaign to support the Russian LGBT community while Athlete Ally and All Out joined with American Apparel to sell a specially branded Principle 6 clothing line that is a visible protest message that can be worn by the athletes and their supporters. Of course no one really knows how the Russian authorities will respond to this in real time.
The 2012 Summer Games in London will be remembered by many ordinary LGBT athletes as the year they discovered they had actual gay role models. Of the 23 openly gay athletes in London, 10 of them wound up taking home Olympic medals. One of the gay role models for many was out soccer player Megan Rapinoe who, before the Games, said “I think there’s an added responsibility when you’re in the spotlight. But I think it’s pretty amazing that we are in a position where you can directly affect someone else’s life without even knowing them or without ever speaking to them or seeing them.”
But for the Sochi Winter Games, looking at skating as an example, well-known openly gay skaters Johnny Weir and Blake Skjellerup won’t be competing this year. Willing to risk arrest and imprisonment had he qualified, short track speed skater Skjellerup had planned to wear a rainbow pin in support of the beleaguered Russian LGBT community. Weir, a two-time Olympian and three-time U.S. champion figure skater with a Russian husband and a new design career, will join NBC’s Terry Gannon for figure skating play-by-play on NBCSN along with Tara Lipinski, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist.
Will gay athletes be safe to announce their sexual orientation during these Games? Will allies be safe supporting their LGBT counterparts? It will be interesting to see not only how the Russian authorities respond but also how and where or even if the official media carrier of the Olympics, NBCUniversal (via its outlets of NBC, NBCSN, CNBC, MSNBC, USA and NBOlympics.com) and other media outlets reviewing the Games will draw the line on what current and former Olympians are permitted to address on-air and online.
On the positive side, the tumult caused by the Russian determination to quash all protests has led to an historic first meeting in December between the IOC and two LGBT sports organizations, the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) and FGG member, the Russian LGBT Sports Federation. In addition to an expressed desire for a safe space for LGBT athletes from the Russian group, Marc Naimark, FGG vice president for external affairs, also expressed hope that sexual orientation will be added to the Olympic Charter’s Principle 6 as a type of explicit discrimination.
For now it seems that the heavy lifting for supporting gay athletes will come from political/diplomatic circles. Since a Pride House for LGBT athletes has been banned, Pride House International has called for groups around the world to host Pride House events in their communities during both the 2014 Olympic and Paralympic Games, even releasing a logo for use by the “remote” Pride Houses.
President Obama, already critical of the Russian anti-gay law, has shown U.S. displeasure by his choice of delegation members to attend the Games. Appointing well-known openly gay Billie Jean King to lead the U.S. delegation, this is the first time since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney that the U.S. delegation won’t include the president, first lady or vice president. Other delegation members include Caitlin Cahow, a two-time Olympic hockey medalist, and Brian Boitano, the 1988 figure skating champion, both openly gay.
The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) won’t take an official position on acceptable forms of protest of the Russian anti-gay laws at the Games, instead deferring to the IOC whose charter bans political demonstrations at the Games. And while King has been pleased with the message of protest that Obama’s delegation choices sent, she has also warned athletes about the potential consequences for protesting while the Games are in progress.
Scott Blackmun, chief executive officer of the USOC, says that they are working with the State Department to ensure the safety of all U.S. athletes. And for Americans traveling to Sochi to attend the Games, the best advice from the State Department is that they should “be aware of their surroundings and take common-sense precautions to stay safe, notably on public transport.”
Let’s hope that on February 7th when the Opening Ceremony is broadcast by NBC on an eight-hour tape delay, the politics of legalized discrimination, potential terrorism, questionable business practices and more take a back seat to sports played at a world-class level. The star of the show should be the Olympians.