By Dana Bitto
January 28, 2014
While the Winter Olympics do not officially start until February 7, the games have been causing trouble before international athletes battle one another for the gold.
This year’s games are being held in Sochi, Russia, and even though Russia claims it is doing everything to keep the games safe for all visitors and athletes, potential terrorists already in the area and Russia’s lack of LGBTQ rights has sparked many debates and protests.
Compared to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, there is reported to be thousands more police and military reinforcements on board to protect people in Sochi. Some security arrangements are in response to insurgencies near the area of the games while other measures are for the spectators themselves, including the requirement that everyone entering the games must register with the police prior to the start of the games.
With all of these reinforcements, many wonder if the fright of safety breaches will take away from the atmosphere of the games.
Matthew Toles, attorney and adjunct seminar and political science professor at Dominican, agrees that the amount of security may affect the way people experience the games.
“I was watching ABC News, and one of our fastest speed skaters who just qualified to go to Sochi actually asked his parents not to come because he feared for their safety. He thought it would be a distraction for him personally, worrying about their safety,” Toles said.
Regarding the lack of LGBTQ rights in Russia, in June the nation passed a law against propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations around minors. The government simply stated that it is illegal to teach children about gay equality.
In a recent interview with CNN, Russian president Vladimir Putin told reporters, “We don’t outlaw anything and don’t nab anyone. That’s why you can feel safe and free here, but please leave our children in peace.”
In Queerty.com, an online magazine for the gay community, gay Russian model Pavel Petel said he is disappointed about Russia’s attitude against homosexuals but does not support the boycotts many across the world are doing.
“Boycotts cause aggression and Russian authorities would have more reasons to close the borders and Internet,” Petel said.
Regarding the status of society in Russia, Petel also explained things need to improve for the gay community.
“People are afraid of losing what they have,” he added. “People are just afraid. I am also worried about my life and I don’t have enough strength to openly express my opinion.”
CNN has also reported that many verbal attacks against gays have been started by groups of Russian police officers.
In regards to Russia’s legislation and attitudes, Melissa Zmuda, adjunct professor of political science, agrees that Russia should do more to be supportive of both gay citizens and visitors from around the world.
“At best, it is uneducated and misguided. At worst, it has the potential to hurt a lot of people and set back equality many years,” she said.
Abel Orizaba, sophomore and president of Dominican’s LGBTQ organization Common Ground, echoed the opinion that the law is based on a lack of education about the LGBTQ community.
“It’s clearly wrong,” he said. “It’s one of those things where it’s more about education at that point because you really need to teach a new generation of kids that people are going to be different. Other than that, I feel that there’s a population in the U.S. that would want that here too, so this country as a whole can’t really point fingers at Russia.”
Though most of the controversy has revolved around Russia and the people attending, the athletes have not been included in much of the discussion. Zmuda explained her support for President Obama sending a delegation of openly gay athletes and noted that their stance could impact others.
“Being in that atmosphere, I think it has the potential to affect how they perform or maybe how they see themselves,” she said. “But, hopefully they will be able to perform and show that Putin can pass these laws and say this [and the athletes] can be strong enough to not let it affect them.”
Because the U.S. has made progress with the LGBTQ community and legalized same-sex marriage in 17 states, it does offer the question of whether we will protest the entire Olympic event.
Toles believes the U.S. has become accepting of the community, but could ultimately be better.
“I think that as a society as a whole, our views of gays and lesbians have changed to be inclusive, which has actually made the country a little less polarizing because we’ve got so many other things to worry about besides what people are doing behind closed doors,” he said. “The fact that we only have 17 states out of the 50 that have legalized, and of course Washington, D.C., we don’t really have the best gay rights background to really preach to others about.”
In response to all the controversy regarding Russia and its policy, protests across the world have included a vodka-dumping demonstration in Los Angeles and a petition by the global gay rights activist group “All Out” has collected over 100,000 signatures worldwide on their pro-LGBT petition to deliver to the International Olympic Committee.
“When you have a giant population protesting against it, you definitely get noticed,” Orizaba said.
“I think the U.S. has shown [optimism] by sending the [U.S.] delegation that it’s actively protesting by sending Billy Jean King over there instead of boycotting it,” Zmuda said. “It’s a little more in your face by…sending people that directly contradict the things you are against.”
However, Toles believes that the games itself could be completely unaffected by these protests, but sees the symbolism in other protests against the law.
“I know a lot of gay and lesbian establishments took out Russian vodkas entirely from their shelves, some actually made a dramatic statement by leaving space on the shelves; empty space where the bottles used to be to actually show that they are taking a stance here,” he said.
In addition, Toles says the Olympics should really be about enjoying the sports.
“Yes, we celebrate under the banner of our nation, standing up there receiving our gold medal, or silver or bronze in celebration of our successes, but really it should be about everyone coming together as athletes or something that’s positive that we can all do as a world.”