Athletes Come Out, Putin Wants to Put Them Back In

In November’s installment of the celebrated HBO Sports series Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel, the show’s longtime correspondent Bernard Goldberg explored the making of a winter wonderland in a...

In November’s installment of the celebrated HBO Sports series Real Sports with Bryan Gumbel, the show’s longtime correspondent Bernard Goldberg explored the making of a winter wonderland in a beach resort. The 20-minute examination of why the 2014 Winter Olympics will be staged in a subtropical resort for Russia’s elite deliberately calls into question the usual controversies that surround the preparation for the world’s most prestigious sporting event: money, power and legacy.
Real Sports peeled back the curtain on Russia’s Olympic preparation by bringing its cameras to areas that tourists won’t see come February. Along the newly built $9 billion main road and railroad into Sochi, the city erected highway barriers to cover the eyesore of deteriorating low-income housing. Other homes and apartments that can’t be cloaked by a barrier were painted up like a Russian Nesting Doll, made to look more presentable on the exterior while hollow insides rot to the core. In a country where it’s common to find houses absent of clean water and working electricity, Sochi is being presented as a winter paradise.

Russia is the world’s largest country. It could afford improvements in all of its scenic and historic regions. Yet, these games concentrated more money than the past 21 Winter Olympic games combined into a Russian summer resort city that is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heart, as well as his renowned summer home.

However, the biggest story to come out of Russia isn’t what officials are doing to hide the country’s lack of running water, food, heat and rampant allegations of bribery among contracts given for Olympic projects. Olympic cities and countries have long traded the needs of its people for the fleeting glory of being the world’s stage for two weeks.

In the piece’s climax, Putin’s right-hand man for the games, Sochi 2014 Olympic Organizing Committee President Dmitry Chernyshenko, comically states that the Olympics “isn’t about politics.” The laughable irony doesn’t stop there. The most troubling aspect of what I’ll loosely categorize under “worst in sports” is the message Putin and his political peers are openly willing to boast to the rest of the world. Russia is not OK with those open about their homosexuality, and the LGBT community is more or less unwelcome to let the rainbow flag fly in Sochi.

As Russian Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko stated in August, “No one is forbidding an athlete with non-traditional sexual orientation from coming to Sochi, but if he goes onto the street and starts propagandizing it, then of course he will be held accountable.”

Russia’s stance on “non-traditional” sexual orientations is the continuation of a troubling trend of Putin’s administration masking realities. The government is refusing to accept or understand the natural rights of those living in its country and the countless LGBT athletes and visitors that will make their way to Sochi this February. In a year when the barriers of sexual orientation and sports are slowly starting to break down, Putin and his political buddies are using vague and outdated laws to ensure that the primary focus of these Olympics is on a modernized Russia.

Some called for the United States to boycott the games altogether. This would make the U.S. a perfect two for two in skipping a Russian-held Olympics, dating back to the 1980 Moscow Summer games. President Obama announced his own personal boycott of the games, instead placing the emphasis on the athletes by sending a U.S. delegation consisting of openly gay former Olympians, including figure skater Brian Boitano, tennis icon Billie Jean King and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow—a group that will send a powerful message to the rest of the world during the opening ceremonies.

Many predicted that 2013 was the year that the first active gay male athlete would come out. Jason Collins, though currently unemployed, sent shockwaves throughout the sports world with his SI cover story in which he opened up about his sexuality. “I’m a 34-year-old NBA center. I’m black. And I’m gay,” Collins wrote.

Tom Daley, a hero in England for his performance in the pool during London 2012, is being praised for announcing his relationship with a man in a recent YouTube video. Plenty have admired the strength of Brittney Griner, who offered up a not-so-shocking admission that a Catholic university would attempt to cover up the sexual preferences of the budding face of its women’s basketball program.

On a much larger stage, Putin and his Sochi host committee will mask the underlying social issue and put the emphasis on the pageantry of the Olympics and a rebuilt and vibrant Russia. Putin can control the message to his own people through state-run media outlets that could be considered light propaganda. As much as the host nation will try to downplay its backward ideology, there will be plenty of noise coming out of the Russian resort town.

In the sports community, the negatives can bring out the best of the athletes and fans. If we put on our blinders and tune out the overpowering commercialism and political implications of the biggest event in the world, it leaves the athletes and fans to uphold the ideals of the Olympic games. The overwhelmingly positive response to Collins, Griner and Daley made for some of the best sports stories of 2013. The outcry by fans and athletes toward Russia’s policies is a sign that a once taboo issue is at the forefront of the international psyche, and the worst of 2013 could become the best of 2014.

As the Real Sports piece makes perfectly clear, these are Putin’s games. He personally addressed the IOC in 2007 in support of bringing the Olympics to Russia. He had the power and influence to see his dream come to fruition. For a man who prides himself on his athletic prowess, these games complete the legacy of the third-term president.

For the Sochi games to continue what has been a progressive year for gays in sports, the athletes themselves need to create a moment like Tommie Smith and John Carlos holding their fists in the air in the name of racial equality at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. A moment like that, where athletes take a stand for something they believe in, could be the defining legacy of the 2014 Winter Olympics. And if it does happen, something tells me that history won’t look back kindly on Putin.

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