I have a complicated relationship with Russia. After a few beers, without fail I slip into a Russian accent that rivals Gru’s from Despicable Me. I play Russian Roulette with pens when I’m bored at work, the name ‘Putin’ makes me crave poutine and mail-order brides crack me up. But now it’s time to put all jokes aside, because what’s happening in Russia isn’t a laughing matter.
In June, Vladimir Putin created a law banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”, defined as giving information to or promoting gay rights to anyone under the age of 18. It’s a law that’s intentionally vaguely-worded, and it sucks. I find Vladimir Putin’s behavior to be uninformed, homophobic and close-minded, and while I’m not a psychiatrist, I’m fairly certain he has issues with his father.
Unfair treatment happens all over the world, every day. Putin and Russia are in the spotlight because of the upcoming 2014 Olympics in – you guessed it – Sochi, Russia. Right now, this law affects LGBT people living in Russia. Soon, it could indirectly affect LGBT athletes from around the world.
Nothing official, yet. They’ve received the petitions, heard the outcry and assured us that they’re “engaged in an open and constructive discussion” with the Russian government. Speaking of petitions, actor Stephen Fry wrote the IOC a poignant open letter urging them to ban the Olympics from Sochi. It’s emotional. It’s real. It speaks the truth. It’s a great read.
Why is this a big deal, besides the importance of the fair treatment of others? Like Fry mentions in his letter, the 2014 Olympic games in Sochi are turning out to be very similar to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin – aka Nazi Germany. Less than 100 years ago, such awful, unfair treatment that I can’t imagine and can only read about in books was happening on a large stage. Nazi Germany and Hitler’s rule seem like ancient history, things I’ve only read about, but my grandparents were alive in 1936; it wasn’t that long ago. To think that the 2014 Olympics in Sochi could be compared on that same level makes me sad.
Not that you can really compare the two; freedom of religion and gay rights are different freedoms. But at the same time, they’re both human rights. Hosting the games in Sochi would potentially rob LGBT Olympians of the happiness, glory and pride that come with the Olympic experience. And in turn, all of that positivity would instead be deposited in Putin’s ego.
Then what’s the right move?
I love the Olympics. For a few weeks every two years, I unashamedly morph into a couch potato, hum ‘Chariots of Fire’ and feel overwhelmingly proud to be an American, and to be Greek (“Greeks invent Olympics!” I can hear my grandfather shout.) I would be devastated if the games were outright canceled, but it would of course be for a good reason. Moving them to a different city might be a possibility, but one with too many logistics and moving parts for me to consider. And surely Russia has spent billions of dollars building stadiums, creating the Olympic Village and preparing the city for an influx of people.
Some, however, are not shying away from Sochi. “I am going to the Olympics because I believe in the power of visibility,” said Olympic speedskater Blake Skejellerup. I’m inspired by his positivity, but I can’t help but feel that the Olympics wouldn’t be the same with increased security and riots happening just beyond the village. In years to come, isn’t this what we’ll remember most about the 2014 games? 2008: a mind-blowing opening ceremony. 2010: Canada wins hockey in Canada. 2012: the year of the Phelps. 2014: LGBT politics in Russia.
I’m not sure what the answer is, but a 2014 Sochi Olympics doesn’t seem safe, or smart. It goes beyond the safety of the athletes – there are LGBT reporters and volunteers to consider, too. Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko issued a statement that the athletes’ privacy would be respected during the games, as guaranteed by the Russian constitution – but surely, that can only go so far.