Sochi Update: Are Russian Organizers Co-Opting the Rainbow?

IOC President Thomas Bach at the unveiling of the official uniform of 2014 Olympics volunteers.
Rainbow fingers: Check out those gloves. IOC President Thomas Bach (left) and two volunteers in the Sochi uniform.

Photo by Mikhail Mordasov/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this week, Thomas Bach, the newly elected president of the International Olympic Committee, was in New York for the approval by the U.N. General Assembly of the resolution declaring an Olympic truce.

The Olympic truce, a call for peace and understanding during the Olympics, hearkens back to the custom of ekecheiria during the ancient Olympics. It is now the practice of the U.N. General Assembly to approve a resolution calling for an Olympic truce prior to each Olympiad, appealing to all nations to refrain from warfare during the games. Back in September, the New York Times announced a diplomatic victory for opponents of Russian anti-gay laws who had obtained a change in the text of the resolution proposed by Russia. At the time, the progress already seemed paltry, and when the final version of the resolution was published yesterday, the victory seemed even more pathetic. The eight words in the 1,700-word resolution can be found at the end of this sentence: “Welcoming the significant impetus that the Olympic Games, Paralympic Games, Olympic Winter Games and Paralympic Winter Games give to the volunteer movement around the world, acknowledging the contributions of volunteers to the success of the Games, and in this regard calling upon host countries to promote social inclusion without discrimination of any kind.”

It’s a very fuzzy paragraph, but apparently discrimination is fine for athletes, but not for volunteers.

It seems ambitious for an organization like the IOC, which declares itself unable to influence discriminatory laws in a host country, to expect to be able to achieve world peace. That said, an Olympic truce is a noble idea, and one worthy of support Alas, not a single modern Olympic truce has ever been respected; it’s a symbolic gesture emptied of meaning by the cruel fact that people can’t seem to stop killing each for even a few weeks every two years.

Speaking of symbolic gestures, joining Bach was Dmitry Chernyshenko, president of the organizing committee of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. While there, he declared that rainbows would be welcome in Sochi. In fact, he noted that the official uniform of the organizing committee was in rainbow colors, and that the gloves in particular had a different color of the rainbow on each finger.

Why is such an important personage going on about rainbows? Because the rainbow flag is the symbol of gay pride, and many have called on athletes, spectators, and others to wear rainbow pins or brandish rainbow flags in Sochi to protest Russia’s anti-gay laws (and IOC complicity in supporting these laws). Among these are Blake Skjellerup, a New Zealand short-track speed skater who came out after the Vancouver Olympics and has declared that he will be wearing the rainbow pin produced by the host committee of the London 2012 Games if he succeeds in qualifying for Sochi.

Chernyshenko is pretty clever; how better to drain any rainbows seen in Sochi of their symbolic power than to declare that rainbows will be everywhere anyway? By flooding Sochi with rainbows, gestures like Blake Skjellerup’s fade into a multicolored sea of banality.

Still, we should perhaps be glad that rainbows will be everywhere in Sochi if that means you’ll be able to wave your flag to your heart’s content with no fear of arrest. Alas, Chernyshenko’s declaration is just one more meaningless reassurance from Russian authorities. We have seen any number of contradictory statements from various parties in Russia over the last few months on the issue of the federal anti-gay law, and in particular on its impact on Sochi. The only statements that are undeniably true are those of officials, including an interior ministry spokesman who said that the law will be in effect at all times and throughout the Russian Federation, including Sochi.

This lack of clarity is intentional. Indeed, part of the perversity of this law is its vagueness. By referring not to homosexuality but to “non-traditional relationships,” and not to being gay but to “propaganda to minors,” it opens itself to any number of interpretations, which itself has a stifling effect. Symbols have no intrinsic meaning, which is why Sochi can be big on rainbows but not on gay rights. The converse is also true: While rainbows will be welcome and omnipresent in Sochi, athletes declaring that their rainbow pin stands for gay pride could still find themselves arrested, fined, and deported. Not a great way to experience their Olympic dream.

The Sochi organizing committee is not the Russian legal and judicial establishment; Chernyshenko simply cannot know what will or will not happen to athletes and others in Sochi. And in any case, the Russians are not the only players in this game. We recall that Emma Green Tregaro, the athlete who painted her nails in the colors of the rainbow at the World Track Championships earlier this year, was threatened not by the Russians, but by the Swedish athletics federation, which ordered her to choose a different color scheme. Just as the kiss of the Russian athletes on the podium at those championships was not considered homosexual “propaganda,” symbolic actions are capable of many interpretations, leaving athletes and others exposed to reprisals and punishment on the whims of governments and sports organizations.

The IOC has remained just as vague as the Russians, saying that incidents would be studied on a case-by-case basis, pushing athletes to self-censorship. 

If rainbows won’t signify gay pride in Sochi (at least with regard to the Russians), how can those present show their disapproval? Pride House International, a coalition of LGBT sport and human rights groups, proposed another symbolic act, the Same-Sex Hand-Holding Initiative. They are calling on  everyone in Sochi to hold hands with a person of the same sex whenever possible (and safe). Whatever meaning you wish to give it, whether that be opposition to Russian anti-gay laws, or the refusal of the IOC and other sports groups to ensure freedom from discrimination for athletes and others at their events, or any other aspect of this complex situation, it will stand as a gesture of solidarity and camaraderie. (And it’s one that everyone can support today, by posting your own photo holding hands to the photo blog at holdhandsinsochi.tumblr.com.)

And if the Russians undermine this symbolic gesture by having everyone hold hands, we’ll have Olympic and Paralympic Games with rainbow-bedecked same-sex-hand-holding folks right and left. In spite of themselves, the Russians may make these the gayest Games yet.