When the Sochi Winter Olympics begin Friday, many will be watching to see whether Russia will enforce its law banning gay “propaganda” to minors if athletes, fans or activists wave rainbow flags or speak out in protest.
The first to move though, is an insider. A protest, a subtle wink or nothing at all? Only Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev knows.
Sobolev took to the Olympic slopestyle course Thursday with the bottom of his board painted with a knife-wielding woman in a ski mask. The picture looked very much like a member of Pussy Riot, the all-woman Russian protest punk band jailed two years ago after a performance in a Moscow cathedral that did not sit well with Russian authorities.
Asked if he was sending a message with his snowboard, Sobolev played it coy. “I wasn’t the person who designed it,’’ he said. Asked if he supported Pussy Riot, he said he had no comment. The Olympics have faced controversy in recent weeks over the Russian government’s law banning “gay propaganda”.
No one is sure whether all athletes will adhere to IOC rules banning protests.
Sobolev is scheduled to return to the course Saturday for semifinals after a 10th-place finish wasn’t good enough for a direct spot into the final round. Didn’t seem to bother him much. After his first run, he lay down and crossed his legs like a model on the beach and soaked in the applause from a largely Russian crowd.
The response elsewhere is a bit confused. The International Olympics Committee has reminded athletes that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites.”
Athletes will be free to express their opinions at news conferences, however, according to IOC President Thomas Bach. Sochi organisers initially took issue with Bach, but then backed off.
President Vladimir Putin has assured gays that they will be welcome in Sochi but only if they “leave the kids alone”. Dmitry Kozak, the deputy prime minister overseeing the games, repeated that message Thursday.
The Russian government initially banned all protests during the games. Following an international outcry, it set up a designated protest zone far from any of the Olympic venues. Across the rest of the country, however, Russian judges have been implementing the law and handing out fines. Here’s a look at who has been targeted since the law took effect in July:
In December, Nikolai Alexeyev, Russia’s leading gay activist, and Yaroslav Yevtushenko traveled to the far northwestern city of Arkhangelsk, where they picketed outside a children’s library bearing banners that read, “Gays aren’t made, they’re born!” The two were fined 4,000 rubles ($115) and their appeal denied.
Newspaper editor Alexander Suturin was summoned to court after he published an interview with an openly gay schoolteacher in his weekly paper in Khabarovsk, a city on the Amur River that borders China. Fines are much higher for those accused of spreading propaganda with the help of media or the Internet, so Suturin was fined 50,000 rubles ($1,400) by a Khabarovsk court last week. In the interview, the teacher — who was told his school contract would not be renewed — defended LGBT rights.
When journalist Yelena Klimova posted an enraged column about the propaganda law to a news website, she got a reaction she didn’t expect: An underage lesbian from provincial Russia reached out to thank her for the column, saying it had helped keep her from committing suicide.
Klimova kept up the correspondence with the girl and set up Children-404, an online group hosted by Russia’s top social networking website, which allows gay and lesbian teens to post supportive letters to each other.
Klimova is facing trial this month in her Urals hometown of Nizhny Tagil, after several complaints were filed by a Russian lawmaker famous for championing anti-gay legislation.
“I didn’t expect it would come into anyone’s head to label letters sent from minors as propaganda among minors, it’s absurd!” she said.
Those cocky Canadians
From talking trash to one of America’s biggest Olympic stars to boldly proclaiming they plan to win more medals than any other nation, Team Canada has taken the gold medal for confidence in Sochi. They swagger into Sochi buoyed by winning 14 golds at Vancouver 2010. They haven’t stopped there. After US snowboarding star Shaun White pulled out of the slopestyle event in part because of the risk of injury, Canadian rivals Sebastien Toutant and Max Parrot brazenly suggested on Twitter that the real reason White pulled out was because he couldn’t win.
Bolt from the blue
winston watts is soaking up every moment with the world fascinated by the resurrection of Jamaican bobsleigh, but a phone call from Usain Bolt would be the icing on the cake. “Usain is a busy guy — he doesn’t have my number. If a text comes in it will be a surprise. I’d love to know he is behind us,” he said. The world’s fastest man has expressed a desire to play cricket and football but Watts said the sprinter could try out for his team if he ever tired of dominating the track.“He would be a very good pusher but he is not the kind of person who likes cold.”