Last summer, as attention began focusing on a new anti-LGBT “propaganda” law in Russia, I had a nightmare. In the dream, I’m in a small gay bar in St. Petersburg. It’s a slow night with only a few guys around, mostly keeping to themselves — then a brick is thrown through the bar’s only window. The window is stained glass. I hear the shatter, turn on my bar stool to see the brick and the shards on the floor and then the moment freezes and resets itself. That one brick crashed through the window again and again and again, a cruel loop replaying itself against my will and wishes for it to stop or change. The horror was not just the act of violence, but the repetition and the fact that there was nothing I could do but watch.
Seven months later — after an almost unprecedented focus on LGBT issues in the run-up to the games — the Olympic flame has been extinguished in Sochi and, I fear, the kind of night I witnessed in that dream is descending yet again. Russia’s anti-LGBT propaganda law is as firmly in place as it was when Putin first signed it. LGBT people across Russia, major cities and rural areas alike, are no safer or freer.
What the hell just happened? In short, the IOC dug in its heels and waited for the outrage to exhaust itself.
In the months leading up to the Olympics, the organization — headed now by a former German Olympian, Thomas Bach — promised again and again that it had received “assurances” from Russian leaders that LGBT athletes and fans would not be discriminated against in Sochi. When American and European leaders began to announce that they would not be joining their Olympic delegations in Sochi, Bach chided them for “politicizing the games,” arguing that they should not work out political disagreements “on the backs of these athletes.” A “protest zone” was set up during the games that was more than 5 miles away from the central area where the Olympics were taking place.
The only thing more stunning than the IOC’s stubbornness is that, in the end, it worked. All the IOC had to do was repeat the idea that the Olympics are apolitical for seven months straight and all Putin had to do was make sure Russia could go 16 days without any significant “disturbances.”
The top Olympic sponsors were no different, saying that they had received assurances from the IOC — which itself had, of course, received assurances from the Russian government that, rest assured, there would be no disturbances in Sochi. Those top 10 sponsors sign multimillion-dollar contracts with the IOC that last for four years so, for them, backing out of Sochi 2014 would’ve also meant backing out of Rio 2016. Coca-Cola — which has been backing the Olympics for nearly a century — and Omega’s contract with the IOC is through 2020. The depth of these companies’ relationships with the Olympics signaled a key lesson from the games for activists: Corporations will always opt for the path of least resistance when it also happens to be the most profitable option. Perhaps Visa, one of those sponsors, says it best: “Sponsoring the Olympic Games makes good business sense for Visa and our clients.”
Meanwhile, attention shifted to the Olympians themselves with the hope that they’d take some kind of a stand in Sochi. A rainbow flag during the parade of nations, or maybe even an athlete coming out during an interview. Perhaps disappointingly, the first and last sign of solidarity from an Olympian in Sochi came during the first day of the competition when out snowboarder Cheryl Maas raised a rainbow-hued glove after her run. And, much to the chagrin of LGBT activists, Irene Wust, the first out Olympian to win gold in Sochi, bragged about “cuddling” Putin when she met him after competing. “He congratulated me and asked me if everything was OK in Russia,” Wust told reporters from Dutch television network NOS.
When it comes to the Olympics, a once-in-a-lifetime event for most Olympians, the hesitance of individuals to step out of bounds says much more about the IOC than about the athletes themselves. The Olympics are not a space in which standing up for human rights is acceptable — at least in Sochi. “Looking to the future the IOC first needs to make a change in Principle 6 of its Olympic Charter, which doesn’t specifically state sexuality as something that shouldn’t be discriminated against,” Olympic speedskater Blake Skjellerup recently told BuzzFeed. “[The charter] refers to myself and other LGBT athletes as ‘otherwise.’”
On Feb. 18, an IOC spokesperson suggested that if there was “a groundswell of opinion,” the organization might consider requiring future host countries to abide by specific rules regarding discrimination. In the same statement, though, the spokesperson added that this policy is not currently under discussion in the IOC.
This conversation isn’t over and it transcends even the Olympics. Qatar, where the penalty for gay sex is up to seven years in prison, is set to host the World Cup in 2020. According to the country’s sharia law, people convicted of sodomy face flogging or a death sentence. There are no bystanders when it comes to being on the right side of history and human rights: You’re remembered as either having enabled oppression or pushed back against it. That pushing back is often, if not always, inconvenient is not a justification.
I don’t know if it’s fair to say Sochi was a test of the international LGBT movement’s might, but there’s no denying that the last seven months have been a lesson in how power protects itself. And at what cost.