At a time when party lines are toed so deeply as to create ideological trenches in the United States, President Barack Obama might have found a unifying force to bring all Americans together: A hatred of Russia. Between remnants of Cold War hysteria and a lack of social progress in the land of a former enemy, Republicans and Democrats, rarely alike, both have reasons to despise the hosts of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.
And so, it’s without much consternation from either side of the political spectrum that the White House announced its delegation to the Sochi Olympics wouldn’t include a President, First Lady, Vice President or even an acting cabinet secretary. Instead it will be comprised of two openly gay delegates: tennis legend Billie Jean King at the Opening Ceremonies, and two-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey, Caitlin Cahow, at the Closing Ceremonies.
A statement from the White House coyly suggested that the President believes the delegation “will showcase to the world the best of America – diversity, determination and teamwork.” In case that was too subtle, the statement repeated that this delegation “represents the diversity that is the United States.” The only way the statement could have been more implicative would be if the statement was read by Ellen Degeneres while holding rainbow flags.
Why is the United States going through all this trouble to say something, while not really saying anything?
More than six years ago, the International Olympic Committee selected Sochi – a Russian resort city with 350,000 permanent residents – to host the fifteenth Winter Olympics. A popular tourist destination ever since Joseph Stalin built a dacha there in the late 1930s, Sochi’s relevance has increased over the past decade thanks to aggressive government investment.
Today, the city is more likely to host state visits and international sporting events than Moscow or even St. Petersburg. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ongoing developments in the region have been likened to an imperial project. However, even as the Russian leader attempts to make Sochi home to his yet to be determined legacy, he can’t escape the foundations of the past.
It’s appropriate that Stalin’s summer home still stands near the Black Sea as both a lodge and a museum, complete with a tacky wax statue of the former dictator at his desk, presumably not signing his name to proscription lists. It’s as much a functioning symbol of Russia’s past as the country’s archaic laws relating to homosexuality.
Three years before he made Sochi his home for the summer, Stalin amended the Soviet Union’s criminal code to include Article 121 which made sexual relations between men punishable by five years of hard labor in prison – the same disciplinary action that an accused pedophile would face. The harsh measure remained for six decades, finally being repealed in 1993 – two years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and six years before homosexuality was removed from Russia’s official list of mental illnesses.
While being a gay man in Russia may have been decriminalized – and no longer considered to be a brain defect – a disturbing trend emerged after Sochi was awarded the Olympics. Nine separate regions in the country – including Krasnodar Krai, where the host city is located – enacted bans on what has casually been referred to as “homosexual propaganda.” Earlier this summer, a similar law was adopted at the federal level that makes “propaganda of nontraditional relationships among the under-aged” illegal across the entire nation.
The law has received fervid international attention, with some activists going so far as to call for a boycott of the Winter Olympics. Adding to the persuasiveness of arguments against going to Sochi are anecdotes of intolerance in Russia that authorities are quick to dismiss as nothing more than the exaggeration of isolated incidents. Punishments inflicted by the “homosexual propaganda” law consists only of a fine, and not state sponsored violence at the hands of neo-Nazi groups. However, the root of hate crimes against homosexuals is difficult to combat when education is made impossible by the illegality of public discourse on the issue.
This explains why the overwhelming majority of Russians (74%) believe homosexuality to be an unacceptable practice, and fewer of the nation’s citizens take an opposing view every year. As other nations around the world seem to be making important strides toward no longer classifying others through sexual identity, Russia is becoming more intolerant.
As national Olympic committees seemed unwilling to boycott the games, attention turned to what individual athletes could do in protest. The anticipation for an athlete as activist has grown so ridiculous that when two Russian athletes embraced and kissed after winning the 400 meter relay at the World Athletic Championships in Moscow this past summer, it was largely assumed to be done as a political statement. Unfortunately, the moment of affection had more to do with exuberant spontaneity than anyone looking for a story would care to admit.
Actual stances at the international event were much more subdued. Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro painted her fingernails in the colors of the rainbow to support lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual rights. Her decision only became noteworthy when Russian pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva complained that the colors were disrespectful to her homeland. Isinbayeva’s knee-jerk response then prompted a clarification that received a deserved measure of mockery from sports fans.
It’s unrealistic to rely on athletes competing in events that represent the culmination of four years work to simultaneously have the mental capability to make impactful political stands. While certainly the Olympic platform provides the potential – at least in part – to elicit social change, such expectations on young participants are unrealistic and end up pardoning the party most responsible for deciding to reward a region that practices harmful discrimination, but the willingness of the International Olympic Committee to reward authoritarian governments with a worldwide hosting platform solely for its own monetary gain is a topic unto itself.
However, in our eagerness to push athletes toward taking a stand – while ignoring the wrongs of the IOC – we forgot about an important channel for protest: The nations represented by Olympians. The decision of the United States to not involve its most senior level of government officials in its Olympic delegation follows the lead of other silently protesting nations like France and Germany. However, the addition of openly gay members to the delegation comes across a nice bonus suggestion for Russia to go and attempt procreation with itself. I’m unsure if such activity would be a state sponsored form of love, or not.
Let’s not be so naive as to imagine that the motivation of the United States is entirely altruistic. Russia played the role of obnoxious savior of America only a matter of months ago, when they stepped in to save America from embarrassment after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told the media that the only way Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could avert U.S. attacks was by turning over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” Kerry added immediately that Assad “isn’t about to do it, and it can’t be done,” inadvertently creating a Catch-22 and suggesting that fighting was inevitable according to the threats of the U.S.
Russia quickly stepped in to take advantage of Kerry’s poor use of rhetoric to offer a peaceful solution, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov suggesting: “If the establishment of international control of chemical weapons in the country will help avoid military strikes, we will immediately start working with Damascus.” Syria’s government said it welcomed the idea, and widespread violence was averted. Never one to be a gracious enabler of international embarrassment for the United States, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin followed this up with an incredibly patronizing New York Times editorial that further rubbed the noses of America’s diplomacy in its own mistakes.
My working and personal relationship with President Obama is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I carefully studied his address to the nation on Tuesday. And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
The Cold War has become the Coy War, and the United States is merely continuing the Subtle Dig Race by essentially using openly gay former athletes as props in its childish attempt to one-up its “friendly” ally. Maybe if the leaders of the respective nations were less concerned with mic drop diplomacy, and took a more active interest in their own policies – at home and abroad – we might actually get somewhere with the specific wrongs that bother both nations.
Now, who’s being naive?