As men and women of Germany’s LGBT Community marched through Berlin on August 31st 2013, brandishing placards calling for a transnational boycott of the Sochi Winter Olympics, it seemed as though all roads led to Russia.  Russia are playing host to the world, and Putin’s regime is currently on exhibition on a world-wide scale.

Putin’s incrimination of the Russian LGBT community as anathema is not a shiny and new concept to the world of 2014; ever since the declaration of Russia’s anti-Gay laws, world-wide protest such as the one in Berlin were commonplace occurrences in 2013, and these occasions always attracted media attention.  However, these protestations have never seemed to achieve enough; the events were undervalued as mere harbingers of the attention that the world now pays to Sochi and Putin, and it always felt as though the world were waiting for something bigger, conserving their energy for an event that would contrast Russia with the rest of the free world en masse. 

Those calling for the boycott of the Winter Olympics haven’t valued how the event could work directly in their favour.  Russia’s LGBT Community was in danger of having their cause fall into impasse; despite all the news coverage over the past year or so, nothing of real sustenance has been achieved to support the civil rights of the LGBT Community.  Russia needs an Olympics, but not for the obvious reasons.  The Olympics have become as much a contest of the world’s ability to support freedom for all, as it has for those taking to the slopes in the pursuit of medals; so it may be valuable to concede that all LGBT protest activity in 2013 was in effect a warm up for the games, akin to an athletes preparation for the biggest contest of their lives.  Sochi has become a world media event; Google has proclaimed its support for the LGBT Community with its Sochi Doodle, as have the Independent and countless other media giants, all standing against Russia’s maltreatment of its own people. 

It should be noted at this point, when I say Russia is maltreating its own people, I have chosen my verbatim very carefully.  Though it is always dangerous to conflate a leader’s views with those of the people they lead; the population’s homophobic rhetoric is fast becoming a central narrative of Russian life.  When posed the question "what are your personal feelings toward the LGBT community?”50% of respondents to a 2013 Russian survey confessed to feeling “irritation and disgust”for the community, another 18% said they felt a “sense of alertness”, only a mere 4% harboured any positive feelings for the community.  Though Putin is, of course, responsible for the incrimination of the LGBT Community, the Russian people have taken it upon themselves to make this not just a political sanction, but also a social one – we’ve all seen the YouTube video of attacks on the LGBT Community.  Putin’s opening address at Sochi focused on breaking traditional stereotypes of how Russia is viewed – he asked why “It is caviar and matreshka dolls, balalaika or ushanka hats, or even just a bear”that has come to represent Russia; I must say I agree with him, we should not focus on these trivial iotas of Russian life.  Instead we should concern ourselves with questions of why we are so liberal towards the practices of a leader who viewed the fall of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical tragedy”of the 20th century – alarm bells should be ringing.

So we ask finally, why is it that the Sochi Winter Olympics should be the platform for this stand-off between Putin’s Russia and those who support the social freedoms of its LGBT community?  Well I think it is because it is the only way of scrutinising Russian values thoroughly.  The Beijing Olympics exposed for many (myself included), China’s maltreatment of Tibet; we can all acknowledge that Tibet should be allowed its freedom.  When peaceful coexistence is not respected by one party, then it is the responsibility of others to support the wronged, not to run away from them under the guise of a “boycott”.

The Olympic mentality has always been one of fair play, unification, equality and personal enrichment, and it is when these characteristics are projected onto Russia that anachronism, inequality and persecution are simultaneously exposed in its stead.  An Olympic games must be the fulcrum that forces the Russian people to open its eyes to these social issues, both party people must amend their outlook as a result.  So we come back to the question of whether it would have been preferable to boycott the Olympics, and I find myself saying no.  We are taught a very important lesson as small children; before many a game, my dad would implore me to understand that it is not the winning, but the taking part that counts in sport.  I can only hope that this ethos will find a home in post-Olympic Russia; I hope that the world’s taking part in the Sochi games really does count for something.

James Safford 


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