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Putin One Clever Guy on Gay Rights


It has been just over four months since Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a measure that purports to ban “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” to those under 18. In the West, activists have howled. In Russia, those howls have left senior officials entirely unmoved.

The International Olympic Committee finds itself in the middle — akin to the position it found itself in five years ago, in the run up to the 2008 Beijing Games, when activists seeking to draw attention to a variety of issues in China, in particular in Tibet, wanted to know why the IOC wasn’t pressuring the Chinese government to do more.

The answer, then as now, is that the IOC is not a government. It is not even a quasi-government. Contrary to public opinion, its ability to exert “pressure” on a state authority is limited.

At any rate, an equally intriguing question is why the Russian authorities found it if not necessary then at the least certainly important this past June to pass such a measure. They knew full well the Sochi Olympics were going to start Feb. 7, 2014.

Russian President Vladimir Putin using gay rights in 2014 Sochi Olympics for his political gain.

The question is all the more compelling as the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media & Society on Tuesday, Oct. 22 opened a three-day conference in Los Angeles entitled, “Sports & The LGBT Experience.”

Surely the Russians had to know they were going to incite a furious reaction. Why invite such controversy?

The answer is telling. No matter the fury, the Russians seem unfazed. The heat to them seems simply more proof their society is different and different is just fine.

“Putin cares less and less about Western outcry — be it gays or something else,” said Sergei Strokan, a foreign-affairs columnist at Kommersant, a leading Russian daily— and Kremlin-neutral — newspaper. “He believes in his superiority over the West. The
belief is rooted in understanding Russia as a unique civilization with no Western rot.”

A reminder: this law passed the Duma, the Russian lower house, by a vote of 436-0, with one abstention.

Only 12% of Russians consider homosexuality fully equivalent to heterosexuality, 35% are convinced it is a disease or a result of psychological trauma, while 43% consider it a bad habit, according to a survey published in May by the independent Levada Center. The survey was conducted April 19-22 among 1,600 respondents from 45 Russian regions; its margin of error is 3 to 4 percent.

It is not a crime to be gay in Russia. Then again, homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia only 20 years ago and, obviously, anti-gay sentiment remains powerful.

“It’s about politics. It’s not about gay people,” said Sufian Zhemukov, the Heyward Isham visiting scholar of Russian and East European studies at George Washington University and co-author of a forthcoming book that uses the prism of Sochi and the Olympics as a case study of Russian life.

He added a moment later, “Adopting the anti-gay law gets some points for the current regime because they are adopting a law [about] which most of the population approves.”

Then there’s this: When you bid for an Olympics, it’s generally the case that you make the campaign all about what you can do for the Olympics. Then the next seven years are all about what the Olympic movement can do for you, the winner. The fixed deadline of the opening ceremony concentrates the mind: you build bridges, metro lines, stadiums, all of that, and then you show off what you’ve done to the world.

In this instance, Putin seems to have learned the lesson, and ramped it up a notch. The Sochi Games are reportedly the most-expensive ever, with costs already estimated at north of $51 billion to build a winter destination from a Black Sea summer

In essence, what Putin is doing is using the Olympics not just to assert Russia’s place in the world – a reprise of the Chinese play for 2008 — but to remind Russians themselves that Russia is, in these first years of the 21st century, still a force with which
to be reckoned.

Russia’s population is dwindling. Across its multiple time zones there are infrastructure challenges large and small. Yet in Sochi Putin audaciously said, we will build it and you will come.

Of course, most everyone who will come will be Russian. It’s too far and too complicated for most everyone else. Is that OK by Putin and senior Russian staff? For sure.

After the Games, what about those facilities in Sochi? For years to come they can be the training base for Russian teams.

One of the things about an Olympics is that exposure to the big, wide world out there tends to bring about the percolation of ideas. But these things take time. Like — years.

Already, because of the forthcoming Games in Russia, there is a volunteer program, a recycling project for water bottles and handicap ramps at the Sochi 2014 arenas. Those are big new ideas in that country.

All societies evolve.

It wasn’t so long ago that the idea of gay marriage in the United States was a political non-starter; this week, New Jersey is just the latest to allow same-sex marriage.

For that matter, it wasn’t all that long ago that a law very much like the one at the center of the controversy in Russia was on the books in the United Kingdom.

That law, called “Section 28,” outlawed the promotion of homosexuality in Britain’s schools. Introduced in the late 1980s, it was finally repealed across Britain in 2003. Current Prime Minister David Cameron has acknowledged himself not having a perfect record in voting for gay rights and in 2009 apologized for Section 28, calling it “offensive to gay people.”

One strains to remember American bartenders pouring Scotch whiskey down the drain because of Section 28 in the way that activists earlier this year were calling for vodka boycotts.

Indeed, it is hardly a stretch to observe that it was only the spotlight of the Olympics that brought so much attention to the Tibetan cause five years ago — and now to the issue of gay rights.

Both sides are, in their way, getting exactly what they want.

In the United States, for instance, the U.S. Olympic Committee this month amended its non-discrimination policy to include sexual orientation. The spark for that change happening now was the Russian law.

The USOC’s move is, its senior leadership made plain, the right thing to do.

For Putin, too — it underscores distinctions in a way he couldn’t possibly articulate better. He must be just short of gleeful watching the dominoes do their thing.

“Putin,” said Strokan, the Kommersant columnist, “sees no major controversy that can spoil the atmosphere of the Games.”

This is someone who, when he came back to office on May 7, 2012, scheduled his very first meeting that day with the-then IOC president, Jacques Rogge. Who, when Thomas Bach was elected last month, managed to track down the new IOC president just
minutes later via cellphone, as Bach was working the line with reporters in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and wish him congratulations.

There’s zero wonder why this measure came up months before the Sochi Winter Olympics. Vladmir Putin did not get to be president of Russia — repeatedly — without being a very smart and calculating guy.

Always — always — remember that.

This article by Alan Abrahamson first appeared in the blog, The Sport Intern. The editor is Karl Heinz-Huba of Lorsch, Germany. He can be reached at ISMG@aol.com. The article is reprinted here with permission of Mr. Heinz-Huba.


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