Words by Phoebe St John
It’s time. Dust off that mink coat, retrieve your finest Russian vodka, and switch on ye olde telly box, because the 22nd Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have officially begun.
If you’re anything like me, Russian geography isn’t exactly your speciality, so allow me to enlighten you of the Olympics’ whereabouts. Sochi is a city in the Krasnodar Krai territory just north of Georgia, along the border of the Black Sea directly opposite Turkey. This city, which boasts a population of 400,000, is apparently so far removed from the icy throes of winter it is affectionately labelled the “Russian Riviera”, or the Florida of Russia. Famously remembered as the location of Stalin’s summer home, some news sources have even gone so far as to call Sochi “subtropical” and “balmy”. Temperatures rarely drop below 8 degrees Celsius, and at press time, there was no snow to be seen other than in the 500 faux snow guns specially imported from Finland. Yes, a seaside town seems a questionable choice for a Winter Olympics in an otherwise arctic Russia, particularly if it means Speedos could be involved.
Still, who are we to judge? No doubt these Games will be spectacular, if its total expenditure of US$50 billion is anything to go by. President Putin is footing the bill of one of the costliest Olympics of all time, with brand spanking new infrastructure including the Fisht stadium, rumoured at 14 times over its initial budget, and some highly fascinating double toilets. For the next ten days, we will watch as 6,000 athletes from 85 countries compete in 89 events and, according to CNN, consume 265,000 litres of Russian borscht in their Olympic Village. More importantly, we will see some outrageous uniforms that may make you simultaneously snort and cry (Norway, anyone?), and even the return of another Jamaican bobsled team, “Cool Runnings” style. We’ve already witnessed the Olympic torch being shot into space and completing a space walk, so no doubt future Games antics will be, well, out of this world.
Still, not everything about this Winter Olympics is as pure as the driven snow (oh yes, pun definitely intended). Russia’s recently adopted, draconian legislation banning gay “propaganda” to minors has been internationally criticised, with the global spotlight now shining on Russia’s LGBTQI community. With politically motivated social conservatism at a momentous high, things are unbelievably tough for gay and lesbian people in Russia right now. There are widespread calls for the criminalisation of homosexuality, only encouraged by public figures, such as TV anchor Dmitriy Kiselyov, and growing anti-gay violence in city centres. As a result, it seems calls for boycotting the Winter Games have quite literally snowballed. 27 Nobel laureates have signed a letter demanding a repeal of the laws essentially denying homosexuality. A 200,000 signature strong petition headed by Amnesty International has condemned Putin’s new legislation ahead of the Games. Even the International Olympic Committee asked its Russian organisers last week to respect press freedom and freedom of speech during the event, when it comes to athletes speaking out about the controversial legislation.
When coupled with the country’s already controversial political situation, threats of terrorism, and the 150th anniversary of the Circassian genocide, Putin may have hit a bit of an iceberg. Barack Obama, Francois Hollande, Angela Merkel and David Cameron, to name a few, have announced they will not be attending the Games as spectators, citing the Kremlin’s anti-gay legislation as highly contrary to the Olympic spirit (China’s leader Xi Jinping will be attending, however- his third trip to Russia in just 12 months). While the United States is not withdrawing their team, Obama has made a statement of sending openly gay LGBTQI sportsmen along to Sochi. “If Russia doesn’t have gay or lesbian athletes, then that would probably make their team weaker,” he said in August.
None of this seems to be an issue, of course, because Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov has told the BBC in an interview that aside from foreign tourists, there are no homosexuals in his city (and don’t we all believe that?). Luckily, then, it appears no one will have the urge to protest at Sochi. But if they were to, surely any one of the 37,000 security officers deployed for the Winter Olympics could step in and, er, break the ice.
Thankfully, Russia’s horrific treatment of their gay and lesbian community hasn’t deterred too many athletes from going for gold. “I want to be proud of who I am and be proud of all the work I’ve done to get into the Olympics,” openly gay Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff revealed in a recent interview. And she’s not too pleased with President Putin. “After I compete, I’m willing to rip on his ass,” she has said.
This is the first time Russia has held a Winter Olympics, and it seems the event is already sending chills down some international spines. So, the expected global television audience of 3 billion waits with bated (foggy) breath for news of the shenanigans in the snowy city by the sea.