Two Swedish athletes found their voice last week at the world track and field championships in Day-Glo-colored nail polish, painting rainbows on their fingernails as an expression of solidarity with the gay-pride movement.
Days later at the Moscow event, two Russian members of the victorious 4x400-meter women’s relay team kissed atop the medal podium. Debate erupted on social media at once: Was it a spontaneous celebration or calculated political statement?
Under a Russian law banning “the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations,” the field of play at the 2014 Sochi Olympics stands to become politically charged terrain in which rainbows and kisses could be construed as cause for arrest.
The law, signed by President Vladimir Putin in June, lays out heavy penalties for those deemed to promote homosexuality to anyone under 18.
The International Olympic Committee has requested written clarification but to date has received conflicting reports about whether it will be enforced against participants and spectators to the 2014 Winter Games at the Black Sea resort Feb. 7-23.
With no clear protocol to follow, Sochi-bound athletes are left to wrestle with the question of what silence on the issue represents: Good manners toward the host nation? Tacit approval of a law that appears to violate the Olympic Charter? Something else entirely?
And those who feel compelled to respond have little guidance in parsing the difference between what is an acceptable expression of opinion and what could be deemed an illegal protest and therefore grounds for a fine, arrest or deportation. Can they wear a rainbow-flag T-shirt in the Athletes’ Village? What about during a televised interview that might be viewed by a Russian under age 18?
“It’s disturbing,” Olympic historian David Wallechinsky said of the implications of the law and the tricky calculus of interpreting it. “The athletes don’t know. And I don’t read Russian, so I don’t know the actual intent of the law.”
Said Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent gay-rights group: “The way it is so broadly written, any show of support for LGBT people can be criminalized. That could be holding a rainbow flag or saying, ‘I support my gay teammates.’ Especially for gay people themselves, there is a huge gray area.”
The world track and field championships in Moscow served as a test case of sorts.
While no competitor was arrested, Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, the gold medalist in the pole vault, scolded the manicured Swedish athletes for disrespecting her country’s laws and residents, saying Russians “consider ourselves like normal, standard people.” Isinbayeva, chosen as the ceremonial mayor of Sochi’s Athletes’ Village, later issued a statement saying her poor English may have led to a “misunderstanding.”
Also at the Moscow event, American Nick Symmonds dedicated his silver medal in the 800 meters to “my gay and lesbian friends back home.” And previously, Johnny Weir, an openly gay American figure skater and bronze medalist at the 2008 world championships, said he would gladly get arrested to draw attention to the injustice of the law should he qualify for the 2014 U.S. squad.
Senior IOC member Gerhard Heiberg of Norway recently raised the specter of moving the Games unless Russia respected the words of the Olympic Charter. But that, too, appears to be a nonstarter.
“The IOC has a history of not acting on human-rights questions,” Wallechinsky said. “There is no way the IOC is going to take the Games away from Russia. It is too big, and they are too powerful.”
It’s hardly the first time politics has collided with the Olympics.
At the 1968 Mexico City Games, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised clenched fists on the medal podium in silent protest of racial inequity. They were sent home as punishment.
The Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan prompted a U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games, followed by a reciprocal Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Games.
The decision to award Beijing the 2008 Summer Games came amid heated debate over whether China’s dismal human-rights record would be endorsed or compelled to improve as a result.
For athletes competing against such politically charged backdrops, deciding whether or when to speak out — particularly at the precise moment they have devoted years of training toward — can be difficult.
Six years after competing in Beijing, his third and final Olympics, kayaker Scott Parsons of Bethesda says he still feels remorse for averting his eyes when he saw ancient homes being razed and entire blocks covered in tarpaulins as Chinese residents were displaced to make way for the Games.
“I felt bad because I honestly, in a sense, turned my back on myself and what I was feeling about that stuff in order to prepare for the race,” recalled Parsons, 34. He finished 16th, out of the medals. “I was a little down after that race — not only because I kind of choked in the race but because of swallowing some of my morality.”
As Parsons sees it, almost everything about the Olympics is political — particularly the selection of host cities. Given that, he thinks it’s both unfair and hypocritical to expect athletes to remain apolitical.
“I think the athletes have a platform they should use as long as it’s respectful and nonviolent,” Parsons said.
Swimmer Glenn Mills never got the chance to compete or speak on an Olympic stage, his opportunity scuttled by the 1980 boycott. Trained to refocus the moment anything went wrong in a meet, Mills immediately threw himself into preparing for the 1984 Games only to miss the cut by five-tenths of a second.
Still, he believes that the 1980 U.S. Olympic team succeeded despite missing the Games. “It took 17 years of focus and work to accomplish that goal” of making the team, he said. “The reason we did it wasn’t for fame or glory but to prove that we had the potential to be the best at something.”
Mills found the platform for making his political statement four years later, joining nine other American swimmers, many from the 1980 Olympic team, in defying a ban on competing in South Africa because of the nation’s policy of apartheid. They chose to go, Mills said, not to endorse apartheid but to support the South African swimmers who were barred from competing outside their country because of their government’s repugnant racial policy.
After staging four meets around the country and a swimming clinic in a Zulu township, the Americans returned home to find USA Swimming had banned them for two years, effectively ending their careers.
“It was a great farewell,” said Mills, who continues in the sport as a coach. “When we came back, there was no remorse.”
While the IOC hopes to get more clarity about athletes’ rights to speak out, stand up or simply wave a flag in support of gay rights in Sochi, Wallechinsky doubts Russian officials will bow to pressure to rescind the law or even suspend it for the duration of the Games.
The controversy comes amid a time of transition in the IOC, with six candidates vying to succeed President Jacques Rogge, whose 12-year reign ends in September.
Moreover, Russian officials likely took note, he said, of the IOC’s failure to hold China to the many pledges it made about openness, tolerance and the broader extension of human rights during the 2008 Games.
“I’m sure Mr. Putin learned his lesson from that,” Wallechinsky said.
Former U.S. congressman Tom McMillen, a Rhodes scholar and 1972 Olympian, said he felt strongly that athletes in Sochi have a forum for dissenting with the Russian law.
“The opportunity to express themselves as athletes should not be discouraged or grounds for disqualification,” McMillen said. “I think there should be an avenue for self-expression.”
Norman Bellingham, former chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee and a gold-medal canoeist at the 1988 Games in Seoul, said he hopes the world’s media will shine a light on the unpleasant issues of the upcoming Sochi Games — particularly anything that flouts the Olympic ideals of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
“It can’t just be ‘friendship and solidarity except for gay people,’ ” Bellingham said. “Just because nothing happened to Jews in Germany in 1936 [when Berlin hosted the Summer Games] didn’t mean that all was well in the Nazi state. The endorsement of that government should not have been given implicitly by the Olympic movement. You have to be very careful about that. You can’t turn too much of a blind eye.”