The LGBT Movement Takes Aim at Sochi
In addition to possible actions on the field that risk arrest or deportation, there will be political action off the field. Leading Russian LGBT activist Nikolai Alekseyev has announced a Sochi Pride March to coincide with the opening of the Winter Games on February 7. Alekseyev has special credibility in calling for a demonstration: his plan to open a Sochi Pride House during the Games as a resource center and safe space for LGBT athletes was struck down by the Russian Justice Ministry in 2012. There have been Pride Houses in the last two Olympics, and before Putin’s legislation it was natural to assume that this practice would continue in Russia. Some LGBT activists within the country have argued that a pride march would be much more effective than a boycott in drawing the world’s attention to official homophobia in Russia and exposing the hypocrisy of the International Olympic Committee.
This movement has elicited contradictory responses from Russia’s ruling circles. Vitaly Milonov, the politician who spearheaded the “homosexual propaganda” ban in St. Petersburg that served as a model for Putin, ardently defended the legislation. He said, “I haven’t heard any comments from the government of the Russian Federation, but I know that it is acting in accordance with Russian law. And if a law has been approved by the federal legislature and signed by the president, then the government has no right to suspend it. It doesn’t have the authority.”
Yet Russia’s sports minister, Vitaly Mutko, is claiming that any concern about the safety of LGBT athletes and their allies is an “invented problem” that the Western media have focused on as a way to besmirch the country’s reputation. “Russian athletes, foreign athletes, guests, those who come to Sochi, will be granted all rights and freedom,” he said, adding: “This law does not deprive any citizen of rights, whether athletes or guests.”
Putin, for his part, has released political prisoners, including members of the punk rock group Pussy Riot and oil magnate Mikhail Khodorkovsky, to quell concerns. He also recently announced the creation of “protest zones”—about nine miles from the nearest Olympic site. Clearly, there is fear in Russia that an international public relations disaster awaits the country if it crushes athletic dissent, while at the same time officials want to use LGBT people as scapegoats for Russia’s existential crises: low birth rates, massive wealth disparities, economic stagnation and an insecure place in the global power structure.
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The scapegoating of LGBT people also turns attention away from what appears to be the most corrupt Olympics in history—which is quite a feat. Conservative estimates put the cost of the Sochi Games at $51 billion. This is more than 400 percent higher than originally planned, and it would make the Sochi Games the most expensive in history—in fact, more expensive than all of the other Winter Olympics Games combined. The costs have not been accrued because of security concerns, although there will be 30,000 soldiers on the ground and an unprecedented amount of surveillance. Instead, the huge sums involved are the result of some of the most brazen cronyism imaginable.
Industrialists Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, childhood friends of Putin’s, have received twenty-one government contracts, worth a total of $7.4 billion. That’s more than the entire cost of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. A different project, a thirty-one-mile railway project from the coastal Olympic village in Sochi to the one in the mountains, will cost a staggering $8.7 billion. Russian Esquire estimated that for $8.7 billion, the tracks could “have been paved entirely with a centimeter-thick coating of beluga caviar.”
As Russian opposition leaders Boris Nemtsov and Leonid Martynyuk wrote, “Only oligarchs and companies close to Putin got rich. The absence of fair competition [and] cronyism…have led to a sharp increase in the costs and to the poor quality of the work to prepare for the Games.” In his blog, Nemtsov added, “The fact is that almost everything that is related to the cost problems and abuses in preparation for the Olympic Games was carefully concealed and continues to be covered up by the authorities.”
One of those officials was Akhmed Bilalov, deputy head of the Russian Olympic Committee, who also ran a company that built ski resorts in the Caucasus. After Putin blamed him for cost overruns last year, Bilalov lost his job and was charged with mishandling state funds. He subsequently fled Russia.
Even more nauseating, if not surprising, is the shrug of the shoulders that these corruption charges have elicited from officials of the International Olympic Committee. Jean-Claude Killy, the French skiing superstar and triple gold medalist at the 1968 Olympics, is now in charge of the IOC’s coordination commission for the Sochi Games. “I don’t recall an Olympics without corruption,” Killy said. “It’s not an excuse, obviously, and I’m very sorry about it, but there might be corruption in this country; there was corruption before. I hope we find ways around that.”
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If Putin expected he would be able to attack LGBT people with impunity while his childhood chums looted the treasury, he was mistaken. What he did not consider was that he would be running directly into an unprecedented level of confidence in the sports world among LGBT people and their allies. Since basketball player Jason Collins came out of the closet last spring—the first active NBA player ever to do so—more and more LGBT athletes and allies have organized themselves to end the tradition of the sports locker room as the ”last closet.”
As Blake Skjellerup said, “My sexuality is gay and being gay is not propaganda, and I can’t change my sexuality and I’m not going, I guess, to change that during the Olympic Games…. My sexuality isn’t the be-all or end-all of who I am. However, given the situation in Russia, I think it’s important to highlight that and to be proud of that.”
In attempting to find wisdom about what athletes may really be risking by raising their political voices at the Olympic Games, I spoke with John Carlos, who protested in 1968 alongside Tommie Smith in the name of human rights [for more, see the sidebar on page 15]. I co-wrote Carlos’s memoir, The John Carlos Story, and know well the price he paid for defying the Olympic establishment.
I asked Carlos whether athletes should boycott or make a stand in Sochi. He said, “The bottom line is, if you stay home, your message stays home with you. If you stand for justice and equality, you have an obligation to find the biggest possible megaphone to let your feelings be known. Don’t let your message be buried, and don’t bury yourself. To be heard is to be greater than a boycott. Had we stayed home, we’d never have been heard from again.”
I pointed out to Carlos that he may be correct, but that this requires someone actually having the courage in Sochi to stand up and pay the price. You could lose your medal, get kicked out of the Olympic Village—as he and Smith were in Mexico City—and after the spasm of media praise, find yourself a pariah in the long years ahead. He said to me, “Yes, it takes courage, but if you have a conviction that what you are doing is right, then you’re going to make the right move. Someone has to sacrifice if we are going to move forward. You might be forgiven in your lifetime; you might not. But if you’re in the right, your sacrifice will be appreciated.”
Athletes are going into the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics knowing there may have to be a sacrifice. It’s a stunning comment on our times that so many seem not only willing but eager to make it.
Also In This Issue
Dave Zirin: “John Carlos, 1968 Olympian, Speaks Out on LGBT Rights”
Andrew Jennings: “Meet the IOC, Ideal Candidates for a Perp Walk”
Samantha Retrosi: “Why the Olympics Are a Lot Like The Hunger Games”
Cyd Zeigler: “A People’s History of LGBTI Olympians”