Standort: / Meldung: "Will Sochi become the "Gay Games"?"

Charles Maynes Moscow

Journalist in Moscow

23. 12. 2013 - 14:21

Will Sochi become the "Gay Games"?

Russia's big gay Olympic headache and Putins strategies to rewrite the script.

Try as we might to talk about athletics when it comes to the Olympics, the Games are often remembered more for their symbolism than sport. And as we enter the final weeks before Russia's Sochi Winter Games, it's worth wondering what will be the storyline of these Games? For it's a story that's being written and edited before our eyes.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, these Games were supposed to be about Russia's resurgence. Look no further than the price tag - at $51 billion, the most expensive in history - to know that Russia will pay anything to make Sochi a success. That critics estimate over $30 billion was siphoned off by Kremlin cronies matters little. National prestige is on the line. In Russia, national prestige is paramount.

So, too, is empire. Sergei Medvedev of the Higher School of Economics tells me that Sochi's epic Olympic torch relay - a 40,000 mile odyssey that has taken the flame to the Arctic, Siberia, and even outer space - is merely a showcase for Russian sovereignty. Akin to a «dog marking its territory», he says.

Even the site of the Games invites a certain amount of daring. Sochi is the country's only tropical city, gets little snow, and sits next to several war zones. With these Olympics, Russia can show it has at last tamed Mother Nature and the troubled Caucasus region in one fell swoop.

So why then does success for these Games feel so remote? Make no mistake, Russians can be great and generous hosts. And, they love sports. But, somehow, enthusiasm for the Sochi Olympics has been muted.

At home, there's a sense that these are Putin's Games for Putin's friends. A common gripe is that they money should have been spent elsewhere – on roads, schools, and Russia's crumbling regional infrastructure.

baustelle für das olympische feuer in sotschi

APA: Hans Klaus Techt

Meanwhile, the international community has seen its Sochi enthusiasm dwindle over Russia's antagonistic positions on a range of issues: The recent attacks on civil society and political opponents, the aggressive bullying of neighboring states in Moldova, Georgia, and – most recently – Ukraine, its senseless prosecution of the Greenpeace «Arctic 30» activists, and Russia's defense of Bashar Al-Assad have all helped create an avalanche of bad publicity.

Where does Russia belong?

Most damning of all has been new Kremlin laws banning «gay propaganda». Mr. Putin is correct when he argues that Russia formally supports gay rights and that many countries outlaw homosexuality outright. But he fails to mention that those countries don't pretend to live by European values and belong to European clubs.

Yet the truth is that, increasingly, neither does Russia. And it's by design. Mr. Putin has built his third Presidential term around a populist conservative campaign that pits Russia as a Orthodox counterweight to western liberal excesses and political correctness.

It may be political theater, but it has consequences. A xenophobic mood has taken hold across the country, with migrants routinely attacked on Russia's streets. Similarly, hate crimes are committed against suspected gays with impunity. A recent LGBT film festival in St. Petersburg was met with bomb threats and harassment of festival goers by local Duma members.

Several world leaders, including French President Hollande and Germany's Gauck have signaled they won't be attending Sochi out of concern for Russia's human rights record. Now, Barack Obama has added himself to the list – citing a 'scheduling conflict'. But Obama's choice for his replacement says it all: tennis great - and LGBT activist - Billie Jean King. Americans now openly joke this is Obama's way of sending a 'big gay fuck you.'

APA: Hans Klaus Techt

The irony is that Putin has turned his Renewal Olympics into the Coming Out Games. Brian Boitano, a champion American figure skater and member of the US delegation, has used the moment to announce that he is, in fact, gay. (No big surprise here). It's easy to imagine other athletes choosing the moment to step forward in similar solidarity.

And what will Russia's security services do? Overreact, and they risk more bad PR. Allow gay protesters to operate more or less freely, and we still walk away with the 'Gay Games' storyline.

Faced with this prospect, Mr. Putin has suddenly decided to rewrite the script.

The details behind the pardon of Mikhail Khodorkovsky - in effect, the Russian Mandela - are still shrouded in mystery. But the move makes Putin look magnanimous. Certainly more humane.

News about the release of Pussy Riot band members, the Greenpeace Arctic 30 activists, and thousands of others under a wide ranging new amnesty law only further propel the 'good tsar' image.

Without a similar gesture by Mr. Putin relative to gay rights, it's hard to know what, if any, immediate impact Russia's sudden generous turn will have towards improving frayed relations with the West or the PR surrounding the Sochi Games.

But look for new plot lines over the holidays. The Kremlin has already shown that it wants a successful Olympics at any price.

What better than a genuine political thaw to transform the Winter Games into a party we can all enjoy.