Political Statements at Sochi Olympics Made in Tiny Steps, Not a Giant Leap

After months of build up, the political subtext underlying 'Putin's Games' was glossed over, but not absent entirely.

A demonstrator holds a poster with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the text "Love always wins" in Madrid on Feb. 5, 2014, during a demonstration against anti-gay laws in Russia.

A demonstrator holds a poster with a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the text "Love always wins" in Madrid on Feb. 5, 2014, during a demonstration against anti-gay laws in Russia.

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Any Olympic Games attract an intense amount of attention and built-up anticipation, but 2014’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, were an exceptional case. Taking place in a country that had recently passed anti-LGBT legislation, the games drew the ire of the international human rights community. The 17 days of Olympic competition were considered a crucial window for activists to draw attention the policies of President Vladimir Putin’s Russia they found concerning.

Yet as the Olympics come to a close Sunday, the games’ biggest stories have been to do with scoring controversies, old rivalries and lots of falls – with few moments sparking discussion of their political subtext. Wrote Frank Rich at New York magazine: 

“If Putin’s authoritarian agenda of harsh and violent repression keeps metastasizing in Russia, Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere – a likely prospect once the Games are over and he is liberated from acting within its spotlight – Sochi may be remembered, as the Berlin Games are, as a giant propaganda gift bestowed on him by dupes and quislings.”

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To get the world to look away from the score board was never going to be easy for activists. Yet, even with a relentless crackdown by Russian authorities, the International Olympic Committee’s instance that the games not be used for political statements and NBCUniversal’s reluctance to stray from their usual mix of fluffy back stories to pad out the sporting competition, political statements were made in Sochi in tiny steps rather than a giant leap. 

Russian authorities did everything they could to keep demonstrations away from Olympic cameras. They designated a protest zone in a suburb 10 miles from the nearest Olympic venue that remained empty most of the time and security was tight around the actual Sochi grounds (though a former Italian parliament member did manage to make a scene there). Many activists expected the limited access, and thus chose to stage demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg or their hometowns. Even there the brutality they faced was greater than expected.

“There was a lot of talk of a post-Sochi crackdown,’ says Shawn Gaylord, an advocacy counsel for Human Rights First. “I would argue that crackdown began even before the Olympics started.”

From Day One of the Olympics, even the hint that a demonstration was underway drew police response.

Anastasia Smirnova, a prominent Russian LGBT activist, was arrested and detained with three of her colleagues when they took a photo in front of a banner – which quoted the anti-discrimination statute Olympic charter known as “Principle 6” -- that they were planning to hang from a bridge in St. Petersburg. The three or four minutes they were posing for a personal picture wasn't intended to be a protest, she says, because they were alone in a secluded area. Yet she was detained for four hours and later found guilty by a judge for carrying on an unauthorized public demonstration.

“The message from the Russian government is that despite this international spotlight being on the country, Russia has its own way,” Smirnova says, adding that many others have been arrested during the Olympic Games. That includes the reported 110 Russians detained for gathering outside the Moscow courtroom where some anti-Putin protesters were facing conviction. 

“This is all happening with the spotlight being on Russia. This is very frustrating and very alarming and I think it is a very bad sign,” she says. “As soon as the Olympics are over the situation will be much worse.”

Anticipating a crackdown on activists, some LGBT groups focused their efforts on the athletes, knowing that authorities were unlikely to arrest the stars of the games and that any statements they made would garner media attention.

“The Olympic Games are a sporting event. It’s an opportunity to celebrate what an athlete accomplishes, not what an activist accomplishes,” says Hudson Taylor, the executive director of Athlete Ally, who was in Sochi for much of the games.

His group, which mobilizes straight athletes to speak up for gay rights, co-sponsored the Principle 6 – or “P6”-- campaign. The thought was that by using the Olympic charter’s own words, athletes could get around its prohibition of political statements.

However, Taylor says he didn’t have access to the athletes at the Olympic Village he hoping for.

“The security concerns coupled with athletes focusing on trying to win a gold medal made having some of those activist conversations more difficult,” he says.

Furthermore, the IOC had made it clear that even the smallest political gestures were banned. It even denied the request of Ukrainian teammates which to wear black armbands to commemorate the causalities of the recent political clashes in their home country. (In perhaps the singular most political statement made by an athlete, a Ukrainian skier dropped out of her final event over the ongoing Ukrainian conflict).

“Many of the athletes that initially got involved in the P6 campaign wanted to do more, but felt as they couldn’t, because of the desire to compete and [not wanting to] rustle the feathers of the IOC,” Taylor says.

While the games will soon be over, its stars will continue to be in the spotlight – think Wheaties boxes and talk show circuits – and Taylor hopes they use those opportunities to speak out, now they have been relieved the pressure of Olympic competition.

Then there is the coverage given to the laws in NBCUniversal’s broadcast. Activists have been campaigning NBC to cover the human rights controversies since they became an issue last summer. The Human Rights Campaign has been tracking the amount of time given to discussing the political situation in Russia on NBC and its affiliates out of the estimated 1,500 hours devoted to the Olympics. As of Day Fourteen, NBCUniversal has logged one hour and 49 minutes total coverage of the laws across all of its channels – or an average, under eight minutes a day (though some days featured none at all).

“A vast a major of the mentions of the LGBT situation in Russia have occurred on MSNBC,” HRC spokesperson Charles Joughin says, referring to the NBC’s cable news station that for the most part continued with its regular program, aside from a few late night or early morning events.

“I have to believe that would have happened anyway, whether the Olympics were happening or not,” Joughin says. Only 12 percent of the total coverage of the laws aired during NBC's official Olympic broadcast. Had NBC included the amount of coverage that MSNBC aired, it would have been seen by nearly 300 million television viewers.

There were a few moments that highlighted the discussion of Russia’s political circumstances, and the two most prominent ones came in unexpected places for completely different reasons.

Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina, former members of  the punk rock protest band Pussy Riot who were released from jail shortly before the games began, surprised the media when they showed up in Sochi after a well-publicized tour in the United States. The New York Times called their presence “a three-day spiral of mayhem” which included viral selfies while in police detention and being whipped and pepper-sprayed by Russian officials as they attempted to film a video for their latest protest song “Putin Will Teach You to Love the Motherland.” That a high-profile group faced such brutality highlighted the authoritarian nature of the Russian state. 

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While maybe not as deliberate as Pussy Riot’s intentions, former Olympic ice skater Johnny Weir stirred conversation about Russia’s political situation in his own way. The openly gay Weir helmed NBC’s daytime skating commentary with fellow Olympic veteran Tara Lipinski and wore outfits so flashy and fabulous, they arguably toed the line of the Russian ban on “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.”

He also braided his hair in a traditional Ukrainian fashion because "everything is going so rough over there.”

Wrote Slate TV critic Willa Paskin, Weir, who is married to a man of Russian descent, has been as flamboyant as he pleases in Sochi, the rare implicit political statement as entertaining as it is brave,” 

Even though Weir said his outfits were not meant a political statement, his Today Show interview allowed him to talk about growing up gay in Russia and qualified as one of the few times NBC touched on Russia’s anti-gay policies in its coverage.

LGBT groups will be making one last big gesture before the closing ceremony as they play to send an open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach asking the IOC to make some policy changes that, according to Taylor, they have opened the door to with their response to the P6 Campaign.

The letter will ask the IOC to strengthen its Olympic host city bid process so that a country’s human rights record is more strongly considered; to hold the host country to a standard that they will not then institute policies that violate human rights; and to amend the Olympic charter so that it explicitly condemns LGBT discrimination.

“Changing Russian law was never something we thought we were going to do,” Taylor says. “[What] we have tried to be successful at is holding the IOC accountable for the principles that they supposedly stand by.”