You have to hand it to Pute: an act of courage and insight, delivered in a manoeuvre of such Machiavellian cunning that everybody was bound to view it as the reverse.
He could have had it so easy, by comparison. Granted, there are the allegations of corruption that just won't go away, and persistent warnings about security threats, but what self-respecting national leader with a degree of personal authority and a large state apparatus of highly disciplined personnel couldn't handle that and put a lid on it, if he wanted to.
He could have had it so easy, by comparison.
Sochi 2014 would have been un-noteworthy, other than for its state-of-the-art facilities, a road into the mountains that might as well, for its cost, be paved with caviar, and of course the sporting achievements of its glorious, beautiful athletes.
|A shirtless Putin impresses the girls as well as the boys.|
But Vlad had other ideas. Being a bit of a Gay Icon himself, he is of course steeped in a deeply conservative culture where large portions of the population hold views on sexuality that in many western democracies would have been considered reactionary sixty years ago, and in which the Orthodox Church wields a considerable amount of power.
|The bloodied face of a young man who was beaten up during a Gay Pride parade in St Petersburg in June 2013 has become one of the emblems of Russians' struggle for equality.|
What was he to do? It's hard to come out - under such circumstances - in support of minorities and their human rights, without riling the strong men around you, incurring their disapproval and wrath.
So he took a leaf out of another great leader's book: when Margaret Thatcher needed to draw attention to her party's rampant homophobia in the 1980s, she brought in Section 28. It worked a treat: within days the gays of the UK were out on the streets, with lesbians abseiling into the House of Lords and invading TV studios, and people properly appropriating every platform available until the damn thing was effectively buried and the Tories were left to spend a decade or so ridding themselves of the 'Nasty Party' tag so readily acquired.
When Margaret Thatcher needed to draw attention
to her party's rampant homophobia in the 1980s,
she brought in Section 28.
Putin knew what he had to do: so back in June 2013, while everything was going swimmingly, he signed into law a similarly daft piece of legislation that prohibits the promotion of 'non-traditional' relationships to minors. Boom. Everybody talking about it.
Now the world had something to focus on. Imagine what a wasted opportunity these Games would have been, had he not done so? In one fell swoop, people who never took the slightest interest in winter sports, who couldn't tell the difference between a sledge and a skeleton if one or the other hit them at 80 miles an hour, had reason to be genuinely agitated.
Sponsors like Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Visa and Proctor & Gamble, who blithely spend billions of consumers' money on associating themselves with an Olympics, suddenly faced valid questions about their ethics, their stance on equality and their support or otherwise of draconian regimes.
|"Oops, let's pretend you didn't just type that." A Coca-Cola interactive was configured to accept words like 'straight' and 'homophobic', but not 'gay'. Coke has apologised and set about to fix the "mistake."|
And Putin didn't leave it at that. Knowing how critical this time is for him, his country, and his games, his next move was to say: 'gay people are welcome, as long as they leave the kids alone.' Genius. He could have just said: 'gay people are welcome.' Saying 'as long as they leave the kids alone' is completely unnecessary. It's stating the obvious. No sane person would think or do otherwise.
You would never say to your straight friends: 'you may come and visit, but please leave the kids alone.' But in the oppressive world he lives in, he can't just say: 'gay people are welcome,' that might upset some of his pals. Saying, 'you're welcome and (obviously) leave the kids alone' is like saying: 'you're really welcome, we need you here: you can tell how badly we need you, I have to speak in code.'
The world jumped on this as a statement of pitiful ignorance and bigotry, when clearly it was a cry for help: 'There are no gays in Sochi: we need you! This town is drab and empty without you, and the few of you there are are so invisible, I can't bloody well find you to join and hang out with you. So please, come over here, and be as gay as you possibly can!" Is surely what he was trying to say.
|In need of gay friends: Anatoly Pakhomov, Mayor of Sochi|
'Please come over here and be as gay as you possibly can.'
There are a million ways you can be gay, whether you're gay, straight, bi or anywhere in-between or nowhere at all on that 'scale', and having been so clearly and unequivocally called upon by the Russian and Sochi leadership to be gay, I do hope that athletes, journalists, fans, visitors, commentators, anyone at all really who finds themselves in Sochi for these games, will make the absolutely most of it.
Wear symbols, hold hands, kiss, hug, dance, and celebrate humanity and make this Olympiad a Fest of Love with warmth and gayness in whatever way you can.
It would be so rude not to.
|Sochi student Vladislav Slavsky and his boyfriend (who wants to remain anonymous)|
overlooking the seaside promenade of their home town.
Getting right in the spirit of things was Channel 4 in the UK with this delightful 'Special Winter Anthem', wishing 'good luck to everyone out in Sochi': Gay Mountain
There are several organisations campaigning for human rights in Russia and for awareness of these issues during the Winter Olympics 2014. Among them:
The Principle 6 Campaign bases itself on the Olympic Charter itself and uses a new, purpose designed logo that quotes the Charter's own statement about discrimination:
Allout is working globally for equality and the rights of people to live without fear, irrespective of their sexuality or gender identity.
Athlete Ally works to end homophobia in sport generally.
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