Why Didn’t More Olympians Speak Out in Sochi Against Russia’s Anti-gay Laws?

German olympians

With the constant stream of athletes, politicians, and companies speaking out strongly against Russia’s oppressive anti-gay laws in the months leading up to the Olympics, you might have thought that Russian authorities would have their hands full dealing with up-in-arms activists once the Games actually began.

Unfortunately for the LGBT citizens of Russia, the public criticism from Olympic athletes was, for the most part, muted in Sochi. The Wall Street Journal reports:  

There were no high-profile proactive statements or blatant symbolic gestures by athletes. A few athletes criticized the law when asked by reporters to weigh in, and a Belgian performer who supports gay rights displayed rainbow colors, a symbol of the gay-rights movement, during her performance at the Games.

LuxuriaBut the only really noticeable pro-gay act inside Olympic Park came when Italian Vladimir Luxuria [pictured], a transgender gay rights activist, showed up at a women's hockey game in a rainbow skirt after broadcasting that she planned a protest. Police removed her from the park. A day earlier police detained her briefly after she unfurled a "gay is okay" banner outside the park.

So what happened?

Ashley wagnerThe paper points to the many athletes who said they had already gone on record against the anti-gay laws and felt that using the Olympic platform to promote a political or human rights cause would be an unnecessary distraction from the competition.

"I really have already voiced my opinion and spoken out," said U.S. figure skater Ashley Wagner [pictured], responding to questions from reporters. Wagner has been outspoken in her criticism of the Russian laws. "My stand against the LGBT legislation here in Russia is really the most that I can do right now," she said. "I'm here to compete first and foremost."

How athletes in Sochi handled concerns over gay rights varied. Belle Brockhoff, the gay Olympic snowboarder who had promised to “rip on [Russian President Vladimir Putin’s] ass” during Sochi interviews, failed to medal and was given minimal press coverage. Gay former Olympian Johnny Weir’s decision to work the Games for NBC but not directly address gay rights in Russia was met with scorn from gay rights groups in the U.S. The German team, meanwhile, debuted a rather gay-looking rainbow outfit for the Games [pictured above], but maintained a steadfast denial that it was meant as a protest statement against Russia's anti-gay laws. Other athletes felt that wearing the 'Principle 6' line of protest merchandise was the proper avenue for Olympians to (indirectly) speak out for LGBT rights. 

Billie jean king_2Tennis legend Billie Jean King, who was among the gay athletes in President Obama’s Olympic delegation, said she supported athletes’ decision to avoid public demonstrations that could get them booted, but disagreed that the Olympics isn’t a place for politics. 

"It is an unbelievable opportunity to exchange ideas and hear each other," she said, standing on a hotel balcony just outside Olympic Park. "Hopefully, out of all these athletes we will have some teachers."

To believe the Olympics can remain entirely separate from politics, she says, amounts to "keeping your head in the sand."

'68 saluteIndeed, using the Olympics as a platform for social activism is nothing new, with the most memorable incident being the black power salute by medal winners John Carlos and Tommie Smith in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. It’s sad to think then, that these Olympics came and went without a similar moment of solidarity with LGBT equality, especially when such international attention was given to the issue. Just imagine how iconic (and bold) of a statement could have been made if a simple kiss was shared between two same-sex medal winners on an Olympic podium while in Sochi.

Now that would have kept the conversation going long after the Olympic spotlight and journalists faded from Sochi. 

The International Olympic Committee, which is under pressure to be more selective in its picking of future host cities, has said it’s impractical to eliminate potentially controversial countries, otherwise the Olympics would be held “in only two places.” Putin, for his part, praised the IOC for taking a “risk” by entrusting the Games with Russia. In a post-Olympics meeting attended by IOC president Thomas Bach and committee members, Putin said one of the main aims of the Games was to show off to the world the new face of post-Soviet Russia, a country he has run since 2000. 

"It was important to show that we are a country with goodwill which knows how to meet guests and create a celebration not just for itself but all sports fans in the world."

With the Games over, however, one can't help but feel a sense of mounting concern for Russia's "goodwill" towards its already marginalized LGBT community. The removal of parenting rights for gay couples in Russia, for example, could very well be the next step in Putin's anti-gay agenda. 

Comments

  1. says

    RUSSIAN activists were detained in Petersburg and Moscow the day of the opening ceremonies. That could have gotten a lot more coverage than it did.

  2. says

    These athletes were more interested in competing and winning medals than they were in Gay Rights. Any who prioritized Gay Rights would’ve boycotted those games. I’m sorry, but human rights trump Olympic gold in terms of overall importance.

  3. Håkon says

    Our tepid response during these Olympics was truly an embarrassment. We completely wasted this unique opportunity to share the need for gay rights with the entire planet.

  4. Keith says

    I tend to find that when an issue doesn’t affect one directly, one thinks that just saying a few words is sufficient to allay one’s conscience and count it as “action” against an issue.

    Writing some words on an online board, saying some words to a reporter, and being silent when one is against an issue are not being active in protest. I am guilty of this, and I’m sure many others in the world are as well.

    I applaud those who get out of their chair, march down a street, call an elected representative, wear their protest on their sleeve, and take action at the cost of personal safety and freedom. Not all of us have such courage, but to those who do, I applaud you (of course, from the keyboard of my computer in my comfortable office at home).

  5. Kev C says

    If you read between the lines, you’ll see that UAE, Qatar, Bahrain are interested in hosting future Olympics, and have the money to buy support from the IOC. And they definately don’t like gays. The IOC needs to be impeached and replaced, simple as that.

  6. JackFknTwist says

    If it doesn’t look like a duck. and doesn’t walk like a duck and doesn’t quack like a duck…..it’s not a duck.

    Athletes gave us nothing.

    It profits a man nothing to gain the whole world if he loses his soul……….but for a medal ?
    Not a gesture, not a voice, not a quack.

    And what will the dead say ?
    “We fought like animals for better meds. , we fought to our deaths for retro-virals, and we fought Reagan and the FDA and the entire world for recognition and health care and we did not wilt under the hatred of a hostile society.”

    You athletes are not worthy of the spittle of the dead.

  7. Eugene says

    The simple fact is that the Olympics had nothing to do with the anti-gay law in Russia. The connection has always been very tenuous. Was it “Russia is bad, let’s boycott everything Russian”? Or was it “Putin wants the games, let’s rain on his parade”? Either way, the connection fell apart when the games started. It was all about the sports – and rightfully so. As a gay Russian, I can only see the actions of the gay community in the West as a mistake – at best they were pointless, at worst, they might have led to burnout. Chances are, people will stop caring about gays and lesbians in Russia after the Olympics, even though the things didn’t get any better. And it probably wasn’t a good idea to turn gays and lesbians into a stumbling block when quite a few people already dislike them. Thankfully, the games were a success and the controversies are mostly forgotten. We need to act smarter.

  8. disgusted american says

    while I agree witht he sentiments here – to me these olympics did not even compare to past ones….in all facets…excitement etc etc…

  9. Kev C says

    Eugene, the Sochi olympics were not much of a success. They were forgettable at best. And then the problem of how Russia dominated in medals by some mysterious intervention implying corruption played a role at Sochi.

  10. Kevin says

    But remember what happened to John Carlos and Tommie Smith after their salute? According to LIFE magazine: “Smith and Carlos were vilified at home for their stand. They were suspended from the U.S. team. They received death threats. But neither man ever apologized for his raised fist or his bowed head — and neither ever had need to.”

    (LIFE.com http://life.time.com/culture/black-power-salute-tommie-smith-and-john-carlos-at-the-1968-olympics/#ixzz2uGkUQ67m)

  11. Ricco says

    Olympic athletes are no better than the IOC. All I ever heard from the majority of them is how much hard work they put into getting to the games.

    Apparently the hard work to compete athletically with other athletes from around the world is more important than the hard work of people fighting for their freedom.

    Fo many years now I have viewed Olympic athelets as socially retarded, living in an insular environment that concerns itself not at all with the macroscopic issues of the world.

    All their athleticism lies in their muscles, and not between the ears.

    I did not watch these games, nor will I ever in my life time ever watch an Olympic event again . . . until Olympic athletes evolve, and can demonstrate that they can both walk and chew gum at the same time.

    Until then, they do not get my respect.

  12. EXPOSING YOUR TRUE SELVES says

    To who? Did any of you contribute to the training of these athletes? Did any of you sacrifice for these athletes? Do any of you even know who these athletes are? Yet you denounce them for not standing up for you? For not pursuing their life long dream? It is what they live for. And you and your selfish ways want them to toss it all out of the window for you? What if someone asked you to put your dreams on the back burner, what would you do? You speak of respect but you don;t know the meaning of the word because clearly you have disrespected these athletes, their families and their dreams.

  13. Eugene says

    @Kev C
    That’s just bitter and baseless. “Mysterious intervention”? What does it even mean?

    As far as I can tell from the comments on news sites, people liked the games and the ceremonies. And even if you think they’re forgettable, they still were a success compared to the vile schadenfreude coverage leading up to and shortly after the opening ceremony.

  14. EXPOSING YOUR TRUE SELVES says

    @KEVIN -DO NOT CONFUSE BEING GAY WITH BEING BLACK!!! WHITE AND LATINO GAYS DISCRIMINATE AGAINST BLACKS DAILY!!! THERE IS NO COMPARISON! AND SINCE MOST OF YOU ARE SO OFFENDED, WHY DON’T YOU STOP USING ALL PRODUCTS THAT DO NOT SUPPORT THE GAY AGENDA THE WAY YOU FEEL THEY SHOULD. PUT YOUR MONEY WHERE YOUR MOUTH IS AND DO A LITTLE RESEARCH AND LETS SEE WHAT “YOU” ARE WILLING TO GIVE UP!!!!

  15. EXPOSING YOUR TRUE SELVES says

    @BARCUS BACHMAN – SHE’S RIGHT. SHE WASN’T THERE TO FIGHT YOUR BATTLE, IT’S NOT HER PLACE. HOW DARE YOU CRITICIZE ANY OF OUR ATHLETES! THIS WAS A SPORTING EVENT! WHAT, IF ANYTHING, HAVE YOU DONE FOR THE HUMAN RACE LATELY OTHER THAN COMPLAIN????

  16. EXPOSING YOUR TRUE SELVES says

    @RICCO – APPARENTLY YOU’RE NOT AND ATHLETE AND HAVE NEVER HAD TO TRAIN FOR ANYTHING OTHER THAN PROBABLY SUCKING A COCK! WHAT GIVES YOU THE RIGHT TO CALL ANYONE ANYTHING? BECAUSE THEY DIDN’T DO WHAT YOU WANTED, NOW ALL OF A SUDDEN THEY’RE ALL BAD PEOPLE? GROW UP AND REALIZE THAT PEOPLE ACTUALLY HAVE DREAMS THAT DON’T INVOLVE BEING USED AS POLITICAL TOYS!

  17. JackFknTwist says

    @ EUGENE :

    Who’s saying there was a connection between the Olympics and the anti-gay laws ?

    We only wanted a gesture of solidarity, of support .
    Was that too much to ask ?

  18. DavidAZ says

    The 2014 Olympics was athlete narcissism on parade. “Me me me” media publicity, a fixation for medals and post Olympic corporate bling was the #1 priority of almost all the athletes, their sponsors and NBC. Advocacy for LGBT human rights never stood a chance against such a powerful corporate mindset. But the 2014 Olympics also shined a glaring light on the disgusting IOC money whores exposing them for who and what they truly are. No wonder Mitt Romney fit right in with that crowd.

  19. Kev C says

    Eugene, it’s being called the most corrupt olympics ever by mainstream media. And some of that corruption implicates the IOC.

  20. JackFknTwist says

    After everything that has happened to us, being sent to the Camps in the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis wiping out half a generation of us, and these athletes are so self admiring that not one of them have the courage or the soul to make a gesture of support to the oppressed gays of Russia…..

    What a bunch of cowardly losers….all of them.

    @ Exposing Your True Selves ;
    “That is what they live for .”
    Obviously !…….total self obsession….and thorough ignorance of everything else.

  21. whoooski says

    @ ExposingYrTrueSelves; What a pathetic loser. Why don’t you reveal yourself?! Give us your true name and address and telephone number. You’re just a loathsome anti-gay troll who’s a total waste of carbon atoms. Why don’t you go f*** the bloody pus*y of a woman on her period… Go to hell. You don’t know anything about anything. How dare YOU even talk to us?! Who the hell are you to say anything? If you don’t like it here, then get-the-hell-out-loser! You think we’re supposed to bribe and massage heterosexuals to be treated like human beings?! F*** you! Drop dead. You mean NOTHING to anybody here. You have no argument, no logic, no valid premises or conclusions that follow. Drop dead you narcissistic, selfish, myopic hideoous troll .

  22. Roman says

    Can we put the stupid and abhorrently dishonest claim that “the Olympics are about sports and not a place for politics” to bed? That is like saying that a White House State Dinner is about food. It is absurd beyond words. Just like a State Dinner is a political event that takes the *shape* of a dinner, but where the food is merely a pretext to promote political relations between foreign leaders, the Olympics are a political event that takes the shape of sports competitions.

    The fundamental reason for the existence of the Olympics has always been political. The Classical Greek games where about religion (which was political) and inter-city-state politics. The official purpose of the modern games is to promote cooperation and friendly competition amongst the nations, a decidedly political (and ideological) goal. And the *actual* reasons nations host the games is as propaganda in support of their government, once again: politics.

    The sports competitions are nothing more than a pretext for the politics of the event. Given this fact, it is ludicrous to hear the spineless IOC, politicians and Athletes endlessly repeating that protesting the human rights abuse of Russia would be an improper injection of politics in a non-political event. The Olympic is about politics and using it as a stage for political protest is entirely legitimate.

  23. Eugene says

    @JackFknTwist

    Well, quite a few people wanted a boycott. Some people wanted them to condemn the government in harsh terms. Some had that stupid Principle 6 thing – as if someone was stopping gay athletes from participating. Some people wanted a gesture – but what gesture would that be? There wasn’t a clear and simple gesture they could use. It’s something gay organizations should have settled on. And, frankly, I don’t know whether empty gestures would have made a difference to actual gay Russians.

  24. Frank says

    It’s not easy being an activist, you have to know what you’re talking about or you can do more damage than good. If you can’t answer the follow up questions then the media and the world will assume you are over-reacting and there really is no great concern to address. You can’t expect these athletes to be that educated on the topic to be able to be the spokesperson for gay rights in Russia.

  25. Eugene says

    @KevC
    Mainstream media were covering the alleged corruption during the construction. It has nothing to do with the medal count. And this is a good example of what was wrong with the coverage – many journalists took all the negativity and rolled it into a ball, to the point that it all is mixed up. One more mistake is the conflation of the anti-gay law and the hate crimes that had virtually nothing to do with it. If it bleeds it leads, I guess, but it distracted people from the actual law that seems quite benign in comparison to violent crimes.

  26. Albert says

    @Kev C: it’s not extremely surprising that Russia would leap in the medal count. 2010 was a bad year for them performance-wise. Also, it’s common for the home country to get a boost too. Keep in mind the host automatically qualifies athletes in all the disciplines. Having said that, Russia did goose up their numbers by “importing” Victor Ahn and Vic Wild, who won multiple medals.

  27. JackFknTwist says

    @ EUGENE :

    Seriously ?
    Is that the defence of the athletes for doing and saying nothing ?
    “There wasn’t a clear and simple gesture they could use.”

    If that is the athletes’ answer then I weep in despair.
    Nothing has been learned.

  28. Eugene says

    @JackFknTwist
    I don’t know what their actual answer is, but I also really don’t know what they should have said or done, especially when they weren’t being asked about it. Imagine an athlete talking about his win, giving thanks to his coach, parents etc. Should he just add, “Oh, and by the way…”? Many of them aren’t very eloquent, so it would be awkward. They needed a slogan.

    Finally, maybe it’s the bystander effect. There were hundreds of athletes, and why exactly would Ashley Wagner feel that she can make a difference by speaking up?

  29. John says

    I, for one, will be boycotting ALL future Olympics (as I did these games) and will also be boycotting ALL global sponsors FOREVER!

    Neither the IOC nor any of the global sponsors spoke-out against the Russian anti-LGBT law, or came to the defence of LGBT people while atrocities were being committed. (Example – the WHIPPING of members of “Pussy Riot” … what century is this?!)

    I am sure that they will all be scrambling to win our wallets but that is much too late for me.

    The only voice we have in this globalised corporate world is our own spending power and I am calling on all LGBT people to boycott future games and all of the global sponsors!

  30. SFshawn says

    If that Olympics was a “success” then the bar for “success” must be VERY,VERY LOW indeed!
    Pathetic and Cowardly athletes from all over the world, a corrupt and bankrupt host country and IOC. The greedy sponsors and media continue to paint a picture of everything going “perfectly”. It will be interesting to watch these VOCAL ANTI-WESTERN/ANTI-EQUALITY/ANTI-WOMEN,ANTI-GAY “countries” continue to isolate themselves from the rest of the world.

  31. keating says

    All of you people who watched the games have blood on your hands. You supported NBC, part of the corporate/IOC/Putin combination that put them on.

  32. JackFknTwist says

    @ EUGENE :

    Isn’t it about deep personal integrity…or a feeling of empathy.

    But it’s over; the moment has passed….and no one spoke.
    That is what history will record.

    Whether it’s me or anyone else I hope I have the courage and the rage to ‘Stand Up’.

  33. Eugene says

    @SFshawn
    Seriously? It will be “interesting”? What about the people actually affected by this?

    There’s one thing I need to make clear: It’s not about you. And not about your self-righteous outrage. So get over yourself.

  34. Blake says

    I think they were humbled by the spectacle of being three. Why get caught up in the “Michael Sam” syndrome. Some gays are more militant than others, and then there’s the question of what it would have accomplished in the grand scheme. Johnny Weir was very effective nightly.

  35. jar says

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the athletes received some back roon pressure from the USOC and IOC to keep their mouths shut.

    As for Eugene’s, what could they have done? A simple gesture, like wearing something supportive on the pedestal would have been very effective and much appreciated. It is a sad comment that (apparently, based upon reports) not one athlete was willing to make that gesture. I don’t think it reflects very positively on them as a group.

  36. says

    I don’t really have much of a comment to make here today other then I did all of my commenting prior to the games and was roundly vilified by so many of you. You were fools not to take a stand but then so many in the gay community have been fools for decades, fearful of taking a stand, of speaking out, or saying “no more” that you deserve what you get: louder people pushing you as far back in the closet as they can. I boycotted the Sochi Olympics. I wish you did.

  37. JackFknTwist says

    @ MIKE RYAN.

    You have a point.
    There are fewer of us standing up and shouting ‘No’.
    These Olympics were a farce.
    And we didn’t make our point.
    It is clear now that throughout the Ukraine and Russia gays are hated and despised. the posse is led by the Orthodox Church – what a surprise.

    We needed a gesture of defiance at these games;
    how foolish of us to rely on some one else to fight our battle.

  38. says

    Once again: there were Russians who DID protest in St. Petersburg and Moscow on the day of the opening of the games. They were detained. Some were beaten and threatened with rape. There were Swedish activists with the ones in Moscow. But it got little coverage.

  39. Eugene says

    @KevinVT
    Yep, it’s pretty sad. The schadenfreude had gotten so thick that it was all about the “ring malfunction”. Heh, they could have made it symbolic – not everyone is included in Russia – but no, it was nothing but vile glee that finally something went wrong. And the extensive coverage of hate crimes made the arrests look tame in comparison.

  40. says

    By and large, athletes confront and defied the oppressive prejudice of the Russian government with the courage and integrity of a bowl of mashed potatoes.

  41. says

    Because some people value a medal, a Nike endorsement deal and their picture on the Wheaties much more than basic human rights. It’s the same “f*ck you, I’m gonna get mine” attitude that Putin is running Russia with.

  42. says

    btw, I apologize to everyone for caring about human rights more than I care about your commitment to your sport-of-choice and possible endorsement deals.

    I’m just selfish, I guess.

  43. jed says

    their silence/excuses remind me of the words of the ill-fated white rose resistance in nazi germany. addressing the common german people who were turning a blind eye to the barbarity happening right in front of them, the group said:

    “Since the conquest of Poland, 300,000 Jews have been murdered in this country in the most bestial way… The German people slumber on in dull, stupid sleep and encourage the fascist criminals. Each wants to be exonerated of guilt, each one continues on his way with the most placid, calm conscience. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”

  44. wheelie81 says

    What happened is that the gay rights activists drum beat was so loud that it completely drowned out the reality that most people just simply don’t care and aren’t interested in politicizing the Olympics. Within the bubble of Towleroad, you would have thought this was the biggest issue on the planet with the daily rants about “Russia this” and “Russia that”. But once you got outside that bubble and joined reality, you would have realized that this was not the big issue the LGBT activists wanted to make you think it was.

  45. cando64 says

    Did anyone else find it interesting that the fingers of the gloves worn by the Russian skiers presented with medals at the closing ceremony were rainbow coloured??

  46. says

    …and, subsequently, a statue was erected in honor of John Carlos and Tommie Smith – I believe it stands at San Jose State – for their act of passion and solidarity; and they are likely more famously remembered than any other participant in those Games…along with Tom Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games, who was inspired by the Mexico City ceremonies in which he participated.

    IMHO, our self-appointed LGBT “leadership” completely dropped the ball on opportunities for visibility in Sochi.

  47. MaryM says

    Because they are cowardly, selfish pigs who regard winning a medal as more important than human rights.

  48. EchtKultig says

    dear “gay russian”:

    “Thankfully, the games were a success”
    at making Russia look corrupt and backwards…the wolf in the hotel was a clever prank, but the rest of Sochi’s problems were not

    “and the controversies are mostly forgotten”
    by the people who were never paying attention in the first place

    As for why more Olympians didn’t speak out? Sorry to put it so bluntly: I’d say for the same reason Mike McQueary (hulking, 6’5 heterosexual man) didn’t speak out when he saw a boy being raped by Jerry Sandusky. For over 100 years, since its origins in the notion of “muscular Christianity”, we’ve been sold the lie that somehow athletic excellence and achievement is a guarantee against moral turpitude and weakness. That somehow ahtletes are better people than non-athletes. That they have a stronger, more just conscience. Look at the way the Rhodes Scholarships, started in 1903, require “Energy to use one’s talents to the fullest, as exemplified by fondness for and success in sports” to be a candidate. Well, clearly it isn’t true. They are better at being athletes than the rest of us. That is all.

  49. EchtKultig says

    “I, for one, will be boycotting ALL future Olympics (as I did these games) and will also be boycotting ALL global sponsors FOREVER!”

    Great, you’ve gotten to the point I was in the early 1990s, when I realized the Olympics were all about corporate profits.