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Sochi Post-Game Analysis

| March 6, 2014

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Now that the Olympic Games are over, and the international press corps is mostly gone from Sochi, activists and observers are trying to make sense of what role, if any, the Games played in exposing Russia’s human rights abuses and anti-LGBT laws—and what will happen now. It’s an exercise in shifting contradictions.

The post-mortem in the media is largely this: the LGBT community was massively failed and failed itself. The day after the Olympics ended, multiple media outlets published pieces criticizing the lack of visible pro-LGBT activism, with Gawker's “The Olympics Failed Gays, and Gays Failed the Olympics” headline representative of the disappointment echoed by many. Chief among the concerns is that athletes, corporate sponsors, and organizers failed to use the opportunity to denounce President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin, and their draconian, oppressive rule. Author and longtime activist Masha Gessen, who fled the country last year because of the anti-LGBT hostility, excoriated the international LGBT rights movement: “It was an embarrassment.”

“There [was] a collective failure to be responsible to this moment in history,” agreed Patrick T. Davis, CEO of Davis Brand Capital, a consulting firm for Fortune 100 companies. “What got proven is that sometimes the bullies win and sometimes people who say they will stand up with you don't stand up when it really is time.”

Davis speaks from a unique perspective. Not only is he a consultant for multi-billion-dollar clients, but he is also cofounder and CEO of the StandUp Foundation, former rugby player Ben Cohen's anti-bullying organization, which works with LGBT groups. When I called Davis to talk about Sochi, his first question was whether I wanted his perspective as an activist or as a corporate strategist. I said both.

He pointed to big brands like Coca-Cola, and other bodies like the United States Olympic Committee (U.S.O.C.) and even the media for refusing to stand for social change. He was dismayed by the U.S.O.C., saying it failed to use its leverage as a superpower to stand up to the Russian government. Davis said leaders could have put pressure on brands and worked with the media better to ensure a line was drawn. “I think [the U.S.O.C.] failed us as an incredible standard-bearer of diversity, of equality, and of setting the cultural tone of what sportsmanship really means,” Davis said. “Sportsmanship is about a higher standard, and they refused to set a higher standard in this instance. I think it's shameful.”

The athletes, too, were said to be culpable in their complicity. Many observers hoped for and expected a dramatic statement, reminiscent of John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the black power salute from the medal podium at the 1968 Summer Olympics. It's fair to question whether this year’s competitors should have been held to that standard, but out of the 2,500-plus athletes—six known to be out—there were no rainbow flags donned on podiums, in the rinks, or on the slopes, no iconic images of even silent protest. The only protests that resulted in arrests were in Moscow and St. Petersburg, but those types of demonstrations were absent from Sochi. In fact, LGBT advocates were distressed at the spectacle of openly lesbian Dutch speed skater Ireen Wust hugging Putin at an after-party celebrating her gold medal win.

It begs the question: If the world was focused on Putin and his policies, and there were little to no repercussions, then in the end, will that spotlight actually have been counterproductive?

“I have mixed feelings,” said Nina Long, co-president of New York-based RUSA LGBT, an NGO dedicated to Russian Americans and LGBT rights. “There was a strong, strong message of solidarity before the Olympics. But the athletes weren't expressing anything. They would shake [Putin's] hand and cuddle. It's a message of, ‘Once it's an international event, we’re going to come and play by your rules.’ No one openly confronted Putin and the Kremlin; they were pretty much welcomed and embraced.”

Long said she thinks the world's scrutiny did prompt some coverage of the Russian government's oppressive policies, and affirmed to LGBT Russians that they are not alone. But is that enough? Long’s assessment of the future for the LGBT community in her home country is bleak. “We think it's going to get a lot worse,” she said. “We think the amount of people leaving Russia and seeking asylum is exponentially going to grow. We don't have a very good prognosis.”

Marina Galperina is the managing editor of a culture and arts blog called Animal New York. She's 26 years old, she’s Russian, and self-identified expatriate queer person. I asked what her biggest fear would be when the games ended. “I think my greatest fear,” she said, “is that [the spotlight on LGBT issues] blows over, and everybody forgets.”

Galperina, who immigrated to the United States when she was nine years old, has been writing about the collision of Sochi and politics, human rights, and the LGBT community. One of those stories she wrote just last week involved Lena Klimova, who was the fifth person charged under the propaganda law, but who was just acquitted. Galperina hopes that coverage spurred by the Olympics will move people to action. “I think the most important thing is for people not involved in activism usually—non-activist LGBT, non-LGBT activist, and the rest—to pay attention to headlines and stories,” she told me soon after the Olympics were over.

Galperina doesn't think western media—even the Russian-speaking media—can change Russia's culture and policies. But she isn't fatalistic. “I think it's too soon to tell if my fear came true,” Galperina said. “I still see people writing about it—and some pretty good think-pieces with historical background came out. So, people are paying attention...for now. We'll have to see. I'm disappointed, but I’m not hopeless.”

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