Tensions are high as the 2014 Winter Olympics prepares to get underway Thursday with figure skating and skiing events and then with the globally televised opening ceremony Friday. While there is a tremendous amount of anxiety over the possibility of a terrorist attack against the Games in Sochi, Russia, there is also considerable uncertainty around who might protest the country’s new anti-gay laws and how and when they might do so.
There is even more uncertainty about what the Russian government will do to anyone who does protest or violate its laws by expressing some positive message about being gay.
In a conference call with reporters last week, the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, said athletes would “enjoy freedom of speech” at a press conference but they could be punished if they do so during competition or on a medal podium. But a few days later, the chief executive of the Olympic Games in Russia, Dmitry Chernyshenko, seemed to contradict that statement.
“I don't think [athletes] are allowed by the [Olympic] Charter to express those views that are not related to the sport at the press conference room," said Chernyshenko. "What I would call the Sochi 'speakers' corner' has been organized in Sochi city so that everybody can express themselves."
The so-called “speakers’ corner” is a cordoned off protest area six or seven miles from the site of the Olympics.
Outsports.com, a site devoted to news about LGBT athletes in both professional and amateur sports, says it’s found only seven openly gay athletes coming to the Sochi Olympics. All are women, none are American, and they represent an “an improbably low number” among the 2,500 athletes coming to the games.
The seven include three speedskaters (Canadian Anatasia Bucsis and Dutch Ireen Wust and Sanne van Kerkhof), two snowboarders (Dutch Cheryl Maas and Australian Belle Brockhoff), one Austrian ski jumper (Daniela Iraschko-Stolz), and one Slovenian cross country skier (Barbara Jezeršek).
“Either GLBT athletes are uniquely bad at winter sports,” wrote the Outsports, “or dozens — perhaps a hundred or more— must be competing in Sochi while in the closet.”
For U.S. television audiences interested in watching the Olympics for signs of LGBT demonstrations or visibility, there are two options: watch a condensed broadcast of the events each evening on NBC, which is covering the events; or watch live webstreams atNBCOlympics.com, keeping in mind that Sochi is nine hours ahead of U.S. east coast time.
The following is a list of specific events at which the potential for LGBT visibility is higher than most:
Thursday, Feb. 6: Dutch lesbian Cheryl Maas will be competing in the “Ladies Slopestyle” snowboarding event today. She has a profile video, Through My Eyes, that talks about her wife and child. She has spoken in the Dutch press about her unhappiness with the IOC choosing Russia for the Olympics given its hostile laws. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Queer Nation says it will mark the start of the Olympics in Sochi by staging a “raucous” protest outside the Russian consulate in New York at noon, as part of its continuous campaign to draw attention to Russia’s anti-gay laws.
Friday, Feb. 7: Two openly gay people are part of the United States’ five-member delegation to the opening ceremony, and there seems little doubt that cameras will focus on them from time to time. They are tennis legend Billie Jean King and Olympic figure skating medalist Brian Boitano. There are several things to watch for during the opening ceremony: Do individual athletes wear anything or do anything in the procession of athletes to identify themselves as gay or as supporting equal treatment for gay people? Will Russian President Vladimir Putin voice anything about the highly publicized controversy during his remarks to the opening ceremony? And to what degree will NBC, which is covering the Games globally, report on the controversy?
Saturday, Feb. 8: Speed skating starts today (6:30 a.m.) and three openly lesbian competitors are on the oval track. One of them, Canadian long-track competitor Anatasia Bucsis, who told outsports.com, "I could never promote that message of concealing who you are with all of this going on in Russia. I'm kind of happy that I did it on my own terms." The other two openly lesbian speedskaters are both from the Netherlands, Ireen Wust (short track) and Sanne van Kerkhof (3000 relay). Their presence on the track may be a particularly interesting time to watch. The Washington Post reported that a Dutch brass band Kleintje Pils (“Small Beer”) “always performs at Olympic speed skating ovals” and signaled it might play the iconic gay anthem “YMCA” this year. “We will see if we can get one or two songs into the selection, knowing that in the Netherlands it will be seen as a signal we are thinking of [gays],” said Ruud Bakker, the band’s leader.
Wednesday, Feb. 12: Participating in the first ever Olympic competition for women’s ski jumping will be Austrian lesbianDaniela Iraschko-Stolz, who picked up the hyphenated name after marrying her partner last year. She told sportsfan.com that she doesn’t plan any protests during the Olympics.
Sunday, Feb. 16: The Women’s Cross Snowboarding is today and Australian Belle Brockhoff, the only openly gay person on Australia’s Olympic team, has told home country papers she plans to wear a “P6” logo and make her unhappiness about the anti-gay laws in Russia known. "The Australian Olympic Committee has been really supportive and they want me to be safe. They don't recommend me waving a [rainbow] flag around which I won't do,” said Brockhoff, in an interview published January 23 in the Courier-Mail."The most I'll do is hold up six fingers to represent Principle Six. Possibly I'll do it on camera here or there, and maybe after the heats of my event." After her event, Brockhoff said she plans to speak freely about her thoughts. “After I compete, I'm willing to rip on his ass," she said. "I'm not happy and there's a bunch of other Olympians who are not happy either." Also on the 16th, the Australian Men’s Bobsled team will carry “Principle 6” logo down the track on their two-man bobsled. Team captain Heath Spence has spoken out against discrimination of gay and lesbian athletes. He’ll be competing in both two-man and four-man sleds.
Sunday, Feb. 23: Closing Ceremony: The five-member delegation representing the United States at the Closing Ceremony will include openly lesbian Olympic silver medalist hockey player Caitlin Cahow. Any athlete who might want to make a show of protest could save their plans for the closing ceremony so as not to risk jeopardizing their competition and medals.
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