Sochi Olympics, Gay Rights and Some Russians' Idea of Respect

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterAugust 16, 2013

Russian pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva
Russian pole-vaulter Yelena IsinbayevaJulian Finney/Getty Images

Too often in life, human beings define one another by what makes them different.

Throughout time, the human race has gone out of its way to classify and categorize itself into different subcultures based on color, language, religion and—as is the case in the world of international sports right now—sexuality.

Russia, host of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, recently passed a law that essentially prohibits people from "acting gay" in public. The actual term the Russian law—signed into effect by President Vladimir Putin in June—uses is "propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships."

In other words, you are allowed to be gay while in Russia, but you aren't allowed to be gay in public, or show support for anyone who is gay in public, while in Russia.

The conversation was at its most vociferous this week as Russia hosted the Track and Field World Championships. Per David Herszenhorn and Christopher Clarey of the New York Times, Russian world champion pole-vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva offered her thoughts on the furor over her country's new law.

Isinbayeva, speaking at a news conference Thursday, said she thinks those challenging Russia's laws need to learn a little respect:

"It’s unrespectful to our country. It’s unrespectful to our citizens because we are Russians. Maybe we are different than European people, than other people from different lands. We have our law, which everyone has to respect."

Isinbayeva also described the legislation as reflecting the legitimate social and cultural views of Russia.

"It’s my opinion also ... "You know, to do all this stuff on the street, we are very afraid about our nation, because we consider ourselves like normal, standard people. We just live boys with women, and women with boys. ... It comes from history."

Lots of things "come from history," some of which were horrible things that human beings in a more advanced, progressive world should never have to endure again.

Enslaving people with different color skin and forcing them to do hard labor for no pay "comes from history." Murdering millions of people who believe in a different god or who do not share the same dominant physical characteristics "comes from history" too.

In many countries, the social oppression of women, who are forced to live their lives with fewer rights and liberties than men, "comes from history."

Needless to say, Isinbayeva's comments at the World Championships were not taken the way in which she had hoped.

American runner Nick Symmonds, who dedicated the silver medal he won in the 800-meter to his friends who are gay, said, via the New York Times, "It blows my mind that such a young, well-traveled, well-educated woman would be so behind the times. She said 'normal, standard people' in Russia? Guess what: a lot of these people with Russian citizenship are normal, standard homosexuals. They deserve rights, too."

It's incredible that we've come this far in the history of our existence in this world and we haven't been able to figure out that everyone deserves rights. Why, because some of us have wives and others have husbands, does that make any of us in any way undeserving of rights?

As with the rules governing rights based on one's sexuality in the United States, not all Russians are in lockstep, if you pardon the phrase, with Putin's new law. Still, the law exists, and this promises to be just the beginning of months of debate around this undeniably tense social issue.

On Friday, Isinbayeva revisited the subject, saying that because English is not her first language, she may have been misunderstood, as reported at the

"What I wanted to say was that people should respect the laws of other countries particularly when they are guests. … But let me state in the strongest terms that I am opposed to any discrimination against gay people on the grounds of their sexuality."

Whether or not you want to accept her qualified backtracking, the new law in Russia remains law. Many around the world have openly lambasted it, calling for everything from demonstrations to outright boycott of the Games.

Celebrated American figure skater Johnny Weir is one of many gay athletes—including former Summer Olympian Greg Louganis—who have spoken out against boycotting the Winter Olympics. In a weekly column he pens, posted in the Falls Church News-Press, Weir implored people to make the Olympics about the competitors, not the host nation:

I respect the LGBT community full heartedly, but I implore the world not to boycott the Olympic Games because of Russia’s stance on LGBT rights or lack thereof. I beg the gay athletes not to forget their missions and fight for a chance to dazzle the world. I pray that people will believe in the Olympic movement no matter where the event is being held, because the Olympics are history, and they do not represent their host, they represent the world entire. 

Unfortunately, the Olympics are always about the host nation, and with such a polarizing law being passed seven months before Russia rolls out the red carpet for such a diverse, multicultural event like the Winter Olympics, these particular Games will be more about the host than ever before—well, at least since the Summer Games in Beijing.

Despite headlines suggesting countries, including the United States, boycott the Olympics, there is little chance of that happening—at least not here. The political climate between the United States and Russia is far different from the early 1980s between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, during the Cold War era when each nation boycotted consecutive Olympics held on the other's soil.

While we're at this point in the conversation, let's not forget that while our country may be more progressive than the likes of Russia, it's not as if homosexuals are afforded the same rights as others everywhere you go in America.

To boycott the Olympics over the issue of Russia's stance on homosexuality would be horribly ironic.

The suggestion of a boycott, however, was a savvy public relations play by those hoping to make the conversation an international issue. The light has never shined brighter on Russia's views of homosexuality—a notion which, to those looking for a world where we stop classifying (and discriminating against) each other by our differences, is a good thing.

Until it's not—at least to celebrated athletes like Isinbayeva. 

In and of itself, the Russian law acknowledges its own ridiculousness. Putin, and those who agree with this decision, assert that the law does not discriminate against gay people, but instead is meant to protect the children of Russia from homosexual propaganda.

Again, it's perfectly OK to be gay in Russia, just not if any children are present.

One might suppose that being gay in Russia is like making a right turn in a school zone. Only, you probably won't get arrested or brutalized for turning right on red when children are present. Holding hands with another man?

That might end differently.

This is a topic that has already begun to overshadow the Sochi Olympics as they approach, and will continue to until Russia decides to relax the new law during the Games. Not that relaxing a law for a month will fix anything, but at least it won't alienate thousands of people from around the world during the Games.

Despite Isinbayeva's comments, and Putin's seeming inability to change his stance on the matter, something will have to give before the Olympics begin. As this Daily Mail article suggested, even Hitler suspended anti-gay laws for the 1936 Olympics. 

That's where Russia stands on this issue: 78 years behind Hitler.