As the Sochi Olympic Games near the halfway point of the competition, Russia’s policies towards same-sex marriage and LGBT rights loom in the minds of some spectators; however, political controversy has been a staple of nearly every Olympics throughout the past forty years.
In the months leading up to the Sochi Games, Russian anti-gay policies, including a ban on same-sex marriage and a ban on adoptions signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin have sparked critical media coverage of the host country. In addition, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev today signed a decree further halting adoptions by same-sex couples and single individuals residing in countries where same-sex marriage is legal.
With its history of anti-gay policies (see timeline left), world leaders like U.S. President Barack Obama, and major corporations, including AT&T, spoke out against Russia’s same-sex policies as the country prepared for the kickoff of the Sochi Games.
The majority of U.S. states do not legally recognize same-sex marriages; however, Russia’s policies stand out in contrast with more inclusive American work and school environments.
Jan Pagoria, a staff member at Elon University’s School of Business, says Russian political leaders’ “mixed messages” regarding same-sex policies and providing a safe and tolerant environment will likely result in negative sentiment surrounding the games. Pagoria says Putin’s message of “No, we’re not doing anything wrong,” may be detrimental and discourage viewers from tuning in.
Although Elon University is located in North Carolina, a state that does not legally recognize same-sex marriages, the school strives towards solidifying an accepting and diverse community, with multiple LGBTQIA resources for students, standing out in contrast to the political environment in Sochi.
The politically-charged coverage of the Sochi Olympics, despite focusing on same-sex policies in the host country, merely continues a trend of political controversy rising to the surface every two years.
The terrorist attack during the 1972 Munich Games set the precedent for politics generally overshadowing the Olympics’ sporting events, according to Dr. Glenn Scott, Associate Professor at Elon University’s School of Communications, who teaches a course on sports writing. The attack “stole the delight and devastated the hope,” Scott furthers, “that the Games could advance social and perhaps political ties among people.”
Thus, the seemingly negative sentiment towards Russia as the host country may be the norm, rather than the exception. Scott references the criticism directed towards Beijing’s 2008 Summer Games, where the media’s coverage frequently embodied “a muted hope that the world attention from the Games might prompt the Communist Party leaders to loosen its authoritarian grip.”
The Sochi Games may be the first where the majority of controversy stems from same-sex policies, but Mexico City’s 1968 Games, where political protests by students turned deadly, and 2008’s Beijing Games, where the government was criticized for its response to a devastating earthquake, similarly support that nearly every Olympic event is shrouded in some form of political controversy.
Scott suggests that the controversy regarding the Sochi Games, especially in the U.S., may appear to be stronger than criticism in years past because Russian policies are “counter to the growing consensus in Europe and North America.” As illustrated by environments of tolerance in the U.S., like Elon University, which takes action to maintain an accepting community, Russia’s policies stand out in comparison.
Despite the controversy surrounding the Games, the event will most likely not stand out as an outlier compared to previous Olympics. According to Scott, “If the contests are fairly administered, with workable facilities and generous spectators, the reputation of Sochi may be diminished by politics but not ruined by unfairness.”
Rather than cementing its place in history due to its politics, the Sochi Olympics may be remembered for its record breaking events, such as Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu setting a new figure skating world record , or Americans taking all three medals in the slopestyle event.