Faster – Higher – Stronger” — that’s the Olympic motto. But for the Winter Olympics that began Feb. 7 in Sochi, Russia, add “controversial,” “risky,” “corrupt,” “environmentally bankrupt” and “anti-gay.”
Coverage of the Sochi Games has been eclipsed by the outrage unleashed last year when Russian lawmakers enacted a measure allowing authorities to arrest, detain and fine people who deliver “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to minors. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly defended the law, which essentially forbids any public display of same-sex affection or public statement of pro-gay support.
Within Russia, the provision has sanctioned an official crackdown on LGBT civil rights work and cultural celebrations such as Pride. It also has spurred hate-motivated violence, including sexual assaults and bashings, some of them fatal, by right-wing extremists.
Outside Russia, human rights advocates have condemned the legislation and its attendant violence through a variety of protests and actions. They launched a series of campaigns to raise money for LGBT causes in Russia, foster global awareness of Russia’s civil rights abuses, press Olympic leaders to speak out against intolerance and rally athletes to embrace the Olympic Spirit, which embodies mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity and fair play.
Even before the Olympic torch arrived in Sochi, those campaigns had achieved results — some of them large, some small.
On Jan. 31, a coalition of 40 groups — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Human Rights Campaign — sent an open letter to Olympic sponsors urging them to denounce Russia’s anti-gay law and to run ads promoting LGBT equality during the Games.
“LGBT people must not be targeted with violence or deprived of their ability to advocate for their own equality,” the letter said. “As all eyes turn toward Sochi, we ask you to stand with us.”
A day earlier, a ballerina in handcuffs took an Amnesty petition — signed by more than 330,000 people — to Moscow. The petition called for a repeal of the law.
A week ahead of the opening ceremony, the German Olympic Sports Confederation released photographs of its athletes’ wearing rainbow-themed uniforms, although there was some confusion concerning the motives behind the fashion statement.
In New Zealand, the parliament passed an unprecedented, unanimous resolution that read: We “wish our athletes competing in the Winter Olympics in Sochi well, and note Russia’s recent passing of anti- homosexual legislation, and ask the New Zealand Government to urge other governments and the Winter Olympics Organizing Committee to protect the rights of all people in Russia regardless of their sexual orientation.”
In Sweden, a “Live and Let Live” video featured thou- sands of Swedes singing the Russian national anthem in the Stockholm Olympic Stadium in support of LGBT people in Russia. Organizer Sean Kelly suggested “protesting using the Russian national anthem, making it a proud song for people of all colors and orientations. Singing for those who can’t.”
The sports ministers of Sweden and Finland announced they would not attend the opening ceremony, and German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande and European Union Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding are skipping the games altogether.
President Barack Obama said he would not lead the U.S. delegation to Sochi, and neither would the first lady — who attended the Summer Olympics in London — nor the vice president or second lady. Instead, the president sent former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to lead a delegation that includes three openly gay athletes — tennis legend Billie Jean King and former Olympians Caitlin Cahow and Brian Boitano.
“President Obama is extremely proud of our U.S. athletes and looks forward to cheering them on from Washington,” a White House statement said. “He knows they will showcase to the world the best of America — diversity, determination and teamwork.”
Meanwhile, mayors of U.S. sister cities with Russian cities called for repeal of the anti-gay law: “This law represents a disconcerting violation of basic human and civil rights and does not reflect the ideals or beliefs of our citizens, nor do we believe that it reflects the values of the citizens of the Russian sister counter- parts.”
Also, the Human Rights Campaign, the largest gay rights group in the United States, continued to grow its Love Conquers Hate campaign, with celebrities helping to generate more than $100,000 to support the LGBT movement in Russia, where Sochi might become a Stonewall.
Anastasia Smirnova, coordinator of the coalition of Russian LGBT organizations, accepted a recent contribution from the campaign: “While the safety of our community continues to be put at risk, more and more individuals and groups stand up to defend and pro- mote equality.”
The continued support, she added, “will help this energy last and will contribute to a safer and better life for LGBT people in Russia.”
Seven years go, Vladimir Putin aggressively courted Olympic officials to select the summer resort of Sochi — one of the Russian des- pot’s favorite places — as the site of the 2014 Winter Olympics. From the beginning, there were concerns about the climate of the region. Two test events in Sochi had to be cancelled in February 2013 because of a lack of snow and rainy weather.
The resort city on the Black Sea is un the only sub- tropical region of Russia. Palm trees line the streets.
Part of the $51 billion price tag for the Games — by far the most expensive Winter Games in Oympic history — is the result of the most massive snow-making project ever undertaken. About 230 million gallons of water have been deployed to cover an area equivalent to 500 football fields with two feet of artificial snow.
The Games are also overshadowed by the threat of terrorism. The Islamist militant group Vilayat Dagestan has promised “a present” for visitors to Sochi. At the end of December, the group claimed responsibility for two suicide bombings that killed 34 people in the city of Volgograd, 420 miles from Sochi.
A U.S. Navy command ship and guided missile frig- ate have been stationed in the Black Sea to respond to possible emergencies.
Corruption further clouds the Winter Games. CBS Sports reported recently that Gafur Rakhimov, one of the “four or five most important people in the heroin trade in the world,” was instrumental in swaying the IOC’s decision to stage the games in Sochi.
The head of the Russian Olympic Committee publicly praised Rakhimov, who’s currently under criminal indictment in Uzbekistan, for his “single-minded work” in sealing the deal for Sochi by obtaining needed votes from some Asian countries involved in the selection process.
Also, numerous complaints have been lodged by Olympic contractors and vendors who allege they were forced to pay bribes and kickbacks to Russian officials overseeing the construction of venues. (See editorial.)