Sochi Olympics offers opportunity to reflect on LGBT rights in Russia


As the world anticipates the steadily approaching Sochi Olympics, the swell of pre-Games excitement is accompanied by the dimness of Russia’s current LGBT rights climate.

The choice of location for the Winter Olympics, which commences Friday, has refueled attention toward Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, which bans the sharing of “non-traditional sexual relations” among youth, on a national scale.

In this problematic position, the spectacle of the Olympics has the potential to not only entertain and invoke national pride for participating countries and their athletes, but to direct attention to the LGBT rights issues occurring within Sochi and Russia as a whole.

Rather than announce a boycott, President Barack Obama chose to show his support for the Russian LGBT community through his anticipation for American gay and lesbian participants to succeed in the games. He also chose to include members of the LGBT community of the U.S. in the opening and closing ceremonies, such as women’s Tennis player Billie Jean King and women’s ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow.

While expressing his confidence for U.S. LGBT athletes through these gestures, he also conveys his sheer defiance for Russia’s discriminatory law, a message that participants in the Games can certainly amplify.

While athletes are barred from conveying political statements while on the medals stand, they are free to do so during press conferences. Opportunities such as this, along with implementing social media, should be used to their advantage. This year’s games will feature a record number of competing nations for the Winter Olympics, totaling 88, which allow participants to reach a greater audience on Russian territory.

Though Svetlana Zhurova, a gold-metal speed skater and mayor of the Olympic village, said she believes it is illogical to use the Olympics as a means of protest. The brutal enforcement of the law is reason enough for athletes to utilize the widespread attention of the Games to further broadcast its radical nature.

For instance, in spite of Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov’s attempts to erase LGBT presence by claiming there are no gay people living in the city, violence and discrimination against the LGBT community prevail in Sochi. Along with unwelcoming attitudes toward gay youths from the community, one gay teen, who feels unsafe in Sochi, believes the law perpetuates violent behavior and disapproval of the gay community since it is publicly endorsed by Russian leaders.

Others, too, have lived in fear following the law’s enforcement. Public out-casting has occurred and recorded beatings have been spread online. One Moscow model, Pavel Petel, has spoken out about being attacked and receiving death threats.

Where a protester in Russia takes a great risk in even unrolling a rainbow flag, Olympic athletes with the world’s attention can speak to the media and use social networking sites to further debase this unjust law and share the stories of those suffering.

Of course, Olympic athletes and advocates are still subject to the anti-gay propaganda law and its consequences.

However, effective protest does not necessarily have to occur within the venue and can begin prior to the games. Already, 52 Olympic athletes, 12 competing in Sochi, are supporting the “principle six” campaign, advocating the clause for “non-discrimination” in the Olympic charter.

In conjunction with gay-rights advocates that will not make a presence in Sochi, such as the Human Rights Campaign which will utilize social media, along with protestors around the world, Olympic athletes bear substantial power with this rare opportunity to spread awareness and support for wavering LGBT rights in Russia.