On Russia, queer rights, and the Sochi Olympic Winter Games

The lives of queers in Russia have never been less than difficult; under the “renewed” Putin régime, however, they have got worse. In the last few years:

  1. Gay rights demonstrations or celebrations have been prevented by local, regional and national government
  2. Protests against queers have escalated and become routinely violent, with no substantive efforts to prosecute those who perpetrate violence against queers
  3. The “promotion” of homosexuality–by locals or foreigners–has become illegal.
  4. Countries that allow queers to adopt children are no longer allowed for adopting Russian orphans, who routinely live in squalor with little hope of any local adoption

This list is just an overview of what is a sustained, complex and pervasive system of anti-queer oppression. Part of a larger web that exploits poverty, ethnic nationalism and a renew orthodox religiosity to fuel “Russian pride”.

In February 2014 Sochi will host the Olympic Winter Games. This very much has been a vanity project for Putin and his ilk–something no one’s made any effort to conceal. In fact, many Olympic observers are convinced it was Putin’s final pitch to the IOC in 2007–where he gave his first major speech entirely in English to an international audience–that brought the Games to Russian rather than South Korea. But other factors played a part as well. Russia is a winter sports powerhouse. Russia had previously hosted international class competitions in almost every single sport discipline at the Winter Olympics; in fact, they were the last country to have done so to have not hosted a Winter Olympics. The Sochi bid was also a solid one…though it meant pretty much every venue would need to be created within 7 years. Reports are that the Russians have spent over €25 billion in their preparations, eclipsing perhaps even what China spent on Beijing’s Summer Olympics–which has around 3 times as many sports.

These Games mean a lot to Putin’s régime. What better way to get their attention on queer rights than a boycott then, right?

No. Not right. Boycotts are nothing new in the Olympic movement. In 1979 the US led a boycott of the Moscow Summer Olympic Games, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989–boycott ineffective. Four years later a Russian-led boycott of the Los Angeles Summer Olympics meant a few countries earned an unusually high number of medals in sports where the most elite athletes stayed away (Canada gold in rhythmic gymnastics? Wow). But the Cold War carried on, as did American kapitalist kultur. Lesser known boycotts by African nations in the 1970s and 1980s were so ineffective most outside of Africa weren’t even aware of the boycotts. Any improvements in Africa related to governance, democracy and economics have been achieved wholly outside of the Olympic boycott. Decades later, in fact.

The boycotts did achieve a few things though. First, they meant hundreds of elite athletes who had trained years (or decades) for their “one moment in time” (Whitney Houston; gay icon) were deprived of them. Those who earned medals at boycotted Games were thereafter known for success at “not fully contested” Games: even some who would have been contenders were their boycotting competitors in attendance. Finally, those who believe that sport can transcend politics discovered that when politics trumped sport, they got…nothing. As someone who has followed the Games since 1972, I am in this third group.

Many are unaware that the Olympics aren’t competitions between sovereign states. Team “Canada” is organised, selected and managed by the Canadian Olympic Committee. The Olympic Charter requires national Olympic committees to be arms length from government. When governments have tried to interfer with committees’ business, that committee risks being excluded from the Games. This is designed to insulate–not perfectly, but largely–the Games from ever being wholly exploited by a host “nation”‘s political enterprise. The Sochi Games will be approved–from colour scheme (“look of the Games”) to ticket prices, to volunteer uniforms to transportation plans–by the International Olympic Committee. Putin cannot do whatever he likes. Seriously…he can’t. The stain on the Olympics from Berlin and Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936–when the Nazis tried to use the Games as propaganda for their racist policies and fascist aspirations–demonstrated why the Olympics need to be above politics. Largely.

By the way, every host city has things it tries to de-emphasize–or outright hide–when they host the Games. Vancouver tried to keep the press out of the downtown East side. Torino tried to mask the shockingly badly managed volunteer program. Rio will try to clean up as much poverty and favela violence as possible; Pyeonchang (who did get the 2018 Winter Games–third time’s the charm) will not talk very much about the third generation lunatic despot a few hundred kilometres away. Aside from this exploding PR disaster about queer rights, Sochi is nicely situated between Georgia/South Ossetia and Dagestan/Chechnya/North Ossetia and their concomitant insurgencies/conflicts.

If not a boycott, what then? How about visibility. In 2009, shortly after Russian began its escalating anti-queer initiatives, Moscow hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. The Swedish entrant, opera singer Malena Ernman, sported a rainbow necklace during the final and made a point of highlighting it during her performance. Rather subtle–rather too subtle, perhaps.

How about this then? The national Olympic committees from countries that support queer rights can incorporate the rainbow flag into their uniforms–as pins or emblems. Their athletes can carry them into the Opening Ceremony. And they can adorn the windows of their apartments in the Olympic Village with rainbows too. THAT will get the world’s media’s attention. It will also allow the athlete’s to compete on the stage for which they have been preparing themselves. Queers have a long-standing tradition of using creative and innovative ways to get on people’s radar.  Here’s another prime opportunity to do so.

A boycotted Sochi Games won’t change anything in Russia. Exploiting the Games to give greater, global prominence to the importance of queer rights without disrupting the Games could.