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Why the IOC’s Olympic-sized, Big Gay Russian Problem Isn’t Going Away—and Shouldn’t

Jews, too, have a stake in the Olympic committee’s cowardly attempt to stifle gay rights protests at Sochi this winter

Rachel Shukert
August 22, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)

The London Olympics last year, I’m sure you’ll agree, were a smashing success, despite all the public grumbling about “unreadiness” and “terrible British weather” that preceded them. Michael Phelps and the U.S. women’s gymnastic team were dizzyingly triumphant, nobody died in any freak accidents and/or terrorist attacks, and thanks to Kenneth Branagh and his Abraham Lincoln costume, the world finally learned of the glorious achievements of Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

So, by the immutable physical laws of pessimism (a subject in which I have a hereditary doctorate), it stands to reason that the 2014 Winter Olympics will be a magnet for certain catastrophe, a fate the International Olympic Committee, ever eager to defend their place on the wrong side of history, seemed to presuppose by choosing Sochi, Russia—a subtropical resort destination with pictures of palm trees—palm trees!—on its Wikipedia page—for competitions in alpine skiing, lugeing, and other things that require the fairly constant presence of ice and snow.

But even so, I don’t think they realized just how bad things would get.

I can’t pretend to exactly understand the reasoning behind the Putin government’s relatively sudden and utterly horrific enshrined persecution of homosexuals and those who would rise to their defense—or even, given the malignant and wholly purposeful ambiguity of the law, might simply happen to know a couple. The best explanation anyone seems to have is that Putin is merely exercising the age-old prerogative of the demagogue: Transfer all responsibility of your country’s decay to some defenseless enemy within—I imagine posters in St. Petersburg are circulating even now featuring grotesque caricatures of Neil Patrick Harris with his tentacles wrapped around the globe.

But the truth is, the reason doesn’t matter. What matters is that this is happening, and it must not be allowed to continue. Exactly how the world is to make their displeasure known has been the subject of heated debate. Boycott the Olympics, some say, except that would cause an undue burden on the athletes who have been training for this their entire lives, so instead we should boycott Stolichnaya, a Latvian company Putin ran out of Russia and that now operates mainly in the Netherlands, a country that as a former resident I can tell you is so gay-friendly it’s basically The Pines with cows. (I’m only partly kidding when I tell you the main person either boycott seems to effect is actually me, given that the Winter Olympics and Stolichnaya are basically my two favorite things in the entire world. Like, if before any of these things happened, somebody said, Rachel, what makes life living for you, à la Woody Allen and Cézanne’s paintings of pears in Manhattan, I would have said: “the Winter Olympics and Stolichnaya.” I’m not kidding.) Banning Russia’s athletes from competing because of actions of their government seems equally unfair, although, look, it would give someone else a chance to win a fucking medal in pair skating for once, and while the idea of just moving them to a previous recent host city—Vancouver, for example, sounds tempting—that’s probably logistically impossible.

The only practical, fair, and satisfying response is a giant protest gesture. Imagine each team in the Parade of Nations marching in the Opening Ceremonies under a rainbow flag. A U.S. team uniform decorated with pink triangles. A gold-medalist stealthily swapping out his country’s anthem in the medal ceremony for Shirley Bassey’s rousing and deafening rendition of “I Am What I Am” from La Cage Aux Folles. (I already plan to do this, when I finally make the curling team.) It’s the old apocryphal “everyone wears the yellow star” trick. The Russian police can’t arrest everyone, and I’m pretty sure that on the world stage, they wouldn’t even try.

But luckily, they’ve got the IOC to the dirty work for them. While the debate still rages, and new videos of gay Russian teenagers being brutalized by gleeful and legally immune skinheads aka the new Cossacks show up on YouTube every day like so many dancing-cat videos, these fearless defenders of brotherhood between nations have, in an act of cowardice so extreme it almost seems like a perverse kind of bravery, already taken it upon themselves to announce that any athlete seen to be engaging in any kind of “political” statement will be disqualified and/or stripped of their medals. So long, Swedish hockey player wearing rainbow nail polish. Goodbye, Russian runners who kissed on the podium in what is being termed a “possible” protest but might also just have been affection for a teammate. Make absolutely sure the bigots and terrorists know that we absolutely will not, would not make any sort of protest—after all, we wouldn’t want anyone to be offended.

Perhaps it was foolish to expect any different from the descendants of the people who gave Adolf Hitler a chance to parade his regime on the world stage in 1936, and the literal people who have refused, again and again, to allow any official commemoration of the Israeli athletes slaughtered in Munich’s Olympic Village in 1972. But here’s the thing: I have internalized enough anti-Semitism over the years to think that almost makes sense. I mean, it’s Jewish stuff, what do you expect? This however, is different. The traditional powerhouses of the Winter Olympics—the countries where people are very, very good at things like ski jumping and the luge, tend to be right in the heart of the Aryan Country: your Austrians, your Germans, your Swedes, your Danes. I mean, the Nordic combined—it’s right there in the title, people. These also tend to be the countries with the most enlightened policies toward LGBT people (after that little blip from 1933 to 1945, that is). And I didn’t think the IOC would do this to them. The Israelis, yes. But some big gay (or gay-friendly) ubermensch from Norway, while the whole world watches? Not on your life.

I guess it just goes to show you, it’s a slippery slope, the most recent modern embodiment of Martin Niemöller’s famous “First they came …” principle. Whenever a governing body is allowed to deem the mere insistence of a group’s simple right to exist, openly and without fear, to be a question of “politics,” nobody is safe. Not even the Swedes. Not even the Swiss. To paraphrase Shirley Bassey: Your games are a sham, ’til you can say, hey world, I am what I am. And it’s a problem not even ice dancing can fix.


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Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.