The 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi were meant to be a celebration of Vladimir Putin —well, at least in Vladimir Putin’s mind they were. The whole world was coming to Russia to see the high-class showplace of efficiency that Putin (and a bunch of state-sanctioned oligarchs) have created. What could possibly turn this tightly controlled PR extravaganza into a debacle?
Rainbows. Or more specifically, anything and anyone having to do with them.
Without a doubt, LGBT issues have proven to be the most enduring problem for Putin and the Olympics. Putin probably expected to get some bad press about Russia’s viciously homophobic policies, and the arrests and the violence – often deadly — that inevitably accompanies them. What he probably didn’t expect was the steady drumbeat of criticism and outrage that is now inseparable from Olympics coverage.
Celebrities from Cher to Chris Pine have used their media platforms to condemn Russian homophobia. More than 50 Olympians, past and present, have signed a petition calling on Russia to end its antigay crackdown.
Governments have gone on record warning Putin that he is being watched. Denmark’s Foreign Minister denounced Russian policy as “objectionable,” Even President Obama stuck him thumb in Putin’s eye — figuratively, of course — by ostentatiously selecting gay delegates as the U.S. representatives to the Games, prompting one of them, skater Brian Boitano, to finally come out.
Putin has made a few gestures to head off some criticism. He released from jail members of the punk band Pussy Riot who had been convicted of hooliganism after they staged a protest in Moscow in 2012. Pussy Riot’s case had been sufficiently high profile in the West to cause Putin headaches, and their amnesty was clearly a sop to placate human rights groups.
But Putin’s heavy handedness undercut any positive press. His comments about keeping away from the children were guaranteed to inflame. Moreover, he hasn’t been helped any by his compatriots, whose efforts have been, if at all possible, even more ludicrous. When Sochi mayor Anatoly Pakhomov insists that there are no gays in his town, he looks like an old-style Soviet denialist. And when Olympic security personnel are filmed tackling a gay teen for waving a rainbow flag, all they do is reinforce the true image that Putin would like to keep hidden.
And the highest visibility is still to come. As thousands of media representatives descend upon Sochi, they will be scouting for stories that will reinforce the image of Russia as a homophobe’s paradise. There are dozens of buzzsaws that Putin can walk into during the Games. NBC has committed to talking about LGBT repression as part of its Olympics coverage. All it will take is one incident at the Games, even a small one, and what’s gone before will look like a Valentine.
On some level, Putin doesn’t care what the West thinks. He never has and he’s not about to start now. In fact, Russians enjoy it when he thumbs his nose at the West. But the Olympics are also about what Russians think of Putin. Anything that darkens that image is bound to hurt. And for Putin, a lot of the dark clouds above him are lined with rainbows.