Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Sochi: The Outer Limits

The debate and issues of LGBTQ rights are widespread all over the world. Sochi, the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics, has been the center of political (and sporting debate) over their policies in mixing with athletes and gay rights movements in Russia for several months. Oh boy...

Friday begins one of the most anticipated, yet one of the most controversial events in the history of sports. The 22nd Olympiad in Sochi, Russia is bound to be a heated, yet exciting two weeks of athleticism and devotion to one's home country. The Winter Olympics brings together numerous athletes that face the elements in outdoor events like skiing, snowboarding, and bobsleigh, and heats up indoor stadiums with events like skating, curling, and hockey. Even though there are only half as many events here as there usually is during the Summer Olympics, there is something special about the Winter Olympics, especially since many of the events are fast-paced and defy gravity. However, this quadrennial event has a small shadow lurking behind it, and the mainstream media has been pulling it out into the open for well over a year.

What is this "shadow" in Russia? In summer of 2013, it was unanimously voted and later declared that homosexual relationships were in no way equal to heterosexual relationships, and the weight of gay rights in the country was inappropriate and obsolete. Any form of support toward gay rights or openly expressing homosexuality results in fines and detainment if the offenders are not citizens of the country. [1] The enforcement of these laws were made clear in news reports, as Russian protesters openly showed homosexual acts (same-sex kissing in public) and were soon restrained and jailed for their defiance. Any form of "gay propaganda" as it has been referred to has been banned and shunned by the Russian government, firing up citizens outside of the country who have been granted gay rights.

With that noted, these laws haven't come without backlash. With gay rights becoming legal in many higher-profile countries, government heads are shaking with dissent toward the decisions of the Russian government. Requests from various international officials to lift the laws in lieu of the Olympic Games have been disregarded, and the Games will go on with all implications set. In a Reuters report, it was stated that Russian president Vladimir Putin guaranteed that there will be equality shown among all competitors during the Games and that he wishes them the very best. On top of this, members of the band Pussy Riot were released from prison under amnesty after nearly two years for protests against Putin (whom they saw as a dictator) and the Russian government's policies. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a well-known prisoner in Russia who was a former oil tycoon, was released from prison as well. [2]

News of boycotts of the Olympics haven't been mainstream, per se, but when it comes to the degree of disagreement of Russia's course of action, there's no doubt that boycotts exist in a number of ways around the world. The users of the Internet have become smarter, and they have been expressing their disgust in the continuation of the Olympic Games in Sochi. You could say that it has practically become digital warfare in what people are finding out about in regards to other questionable issues in Russia outside of the Anti-Gay law. I digress.
In what may seem like a sign of nonconformism by the United States, President Barack Obama is sending three openly gay athletes to be some of the delegates for the American side. The three are Brian Boitano (former Olympic champion in ice skating), Caitlin Cahow (former Olympic medalist in ice hockey), and Billie Jean King (tennis champion), who had announced on Wednesday that she will not be making the trip to Sochi due to caring for her ailing mother. [3] Is this a subliminal statement sent to the Russian government? It appears to be at face value, but it could also be a sign that we're making a mountain out of a molehill. Boitano, Cahow, and King probably didn't even have the thought in their minds that they were "boycott patriots" to begin with. American diving champion Greg Louganis, who recently married his partner, wrote in a blog: "Boycotting sends the wrong message and will only harm the hard-working athletes set to compete in the 2014 Olympics, not the Russian government itself." [4] That should explain enough already.

Requests of fighting the laws choking the rights of LGBTQ people haven't just been stopped for protesters. Corporate sponsorship has also fallen victim to these Anti-Gay laws. Many companies such as AT&T, McDonald's, and Coca-Cola [obviously] do not see eye-to-eye on what Russia has implicated in their government, and the result is that they have had to adjust some of their promotions prior to the event. Proctor & Gamble, a huge advertising force during the Olympic Games (especially in Russia), has had to pull off a major overhaul on public relations plans despite their alleged ability to prevent the Anti-Gay law from passing through the government. In fact, the Human Rights Campaign recommended that companies press the gas pedal a little harder when it came to pro-LGBTQ advertising in wake of Russia's enforcement of their Anti-Gay law. With that said, it's easy to tell that nothing was done about it last summer, and those laws are still in effect as strongly as they ever were. [5]


Amid all of this insanity, there has also been a lot of speculation on the behind-the-scenes work going on before this weekend's opening ceremony. The deal with this one is that Russia didn't have a lot of money to work with when it came to building new facilities and cleaning up the whole area. This site here shows what areas in Sochi supposedly looked like about a week and a half ago. What it looks like now, we're not exactly sure, but reports on renovating areas is going into eleventh hour in that region. Apparently, the $50 billion that was used in preparation for the Games wasn't nearly enough, and it looks like the bottom of the barrel is being scratched to get everything prepared and making the country look strong.

Honestly, this is just one big train wreck of controversy and financial holes. There is also underlying worries of terrorism surrounding the event as well. The city of Volgograd (about 600 miles north of Sochi) was the center for two suicide bombings, where a few dozen people were killed. In response, added security will be provided around the Olympic grounds to prevent any kind of disruption. Also, this isn't the first instance where unrest in a host country hasn't sat in the back of people's minds during the Olympic Games. Controversy was thick during the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 in regards to human rights in Tibet. Riots and protests were widespread in China, and many people were killed and arrested during this period. Awareness wasn't just limited to this region, as there were plenty of instances of activism worldwide, requesting the boycott of the 2008 Games. This came as a surprise, as the Chinese government had a strong death grip on any media exposure of the turmoil, and any outside media outlets were barred from reporting in distressed areas. Once it was revealed that China ended their restriction on coverage, other issues were exposed, such as non-Chinese citizens being caught in the mix and getting involved in protests.

The case in Sochi is rather similar to what went on in Beijing. While there are a lot of questionable acts going on within the country, the Olympics are all about sports and the representation of one's country. The Olympics don't exist to shove all forms of government and belief down another person's throat. The Anti-Gay laws may not be right in the eyes of Americans (or wherever you call home), but this is a friendly competition between countries that are out to prove who has the best athletes in the world. We shouldn't have to think that this will be Munich: Part 2; this is a sporting event, and Putin would not want to have a huge disaster on his hands. Come to think of it, he has a lot of lives in his hands, and with the unrest of Anti-Gay laws, alleged terrorism, and impending riots in the spotlight, it really adds tension and pressure to make sure everything goes off without a hitch.

I don't know about you guys, but I'm looking forward to the Games. It isn't a government-driven event, it's an showcase of sports and entertainment.


(Sources from USA Today (3), Reuters (2), Huffington Post (4, 5) and The Guardian (1). Links are above.)