LGBT visibility during the first few days of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, included some high profile political “messages,” two gay inclusive television commercials, and several surprise choices by both Russian games organizers and openly gay athletes.
It was Olympic organizers at the speed skating stadium who chose to play the iconic gay anthem “YMCA” over the public address system during Saturday’s competition. And it was openly lesbian athlete Daniela Iraschko-Stolz who reportedly told reporters, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to make protests here, no one cares.”
Most Americans are getting their Olympic coverage via NBC’s nightly broadcasts of selected, edited events, as well as some live coverage during the day. Although broadcast of some of the first events began on Thursday, February 6, the most-watched programming started with the opening ceremony Friday night.
NBC led its opening ceremony coverage with an interview taped by anchor Bob Costas via satellite with President Obama on Thursday. In that interview, Costas asked the president why he, the vice president, and First Lady did not attend. President Obama said they all had busy schedules and “a lot going on,” and pointed out that he hasn’t attended any other Olympics since taking office in 2009.
Costas pointed out that the president chose three openly gay athletes to be part of the 10-member U.S. presidential delegation to the opening and closing ceremonies, saying that seemed to be sending a message. President Obama acknowledged he was.
“There is no doubt we wanted to make it very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in anything, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation,” said President Obama. (The full interview is available at NBC’s Olympics website.)
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach seemed to chide President Obama with his own remarks at the opening ceremony. Although he said the Olympics are about “embracing human diversity in great unity,” he called on “political leaders of the world” to “have the courage to address your disagreements in a peaceful, direct, and political dialogue and not on the backs of these athletes.”
However, many people were attempting to find politics on the backs of the athletes, literally. When the German team entered the stadium wearing multi-colored uniforms, NBC co-anchor Meredith Vieira immediately characterized them as “rainbow-colored” but then quickly added that, when the uniforms were unveiled last October, the German team officials made a point of saying they were not a statement in regards to Russia’s anti-gay laws.
“So, if you’re thinking that this was a statement about that,” said Vieira, in an unusually strident tone, “it is not.”
Vieira said nothing as members of the Greek team, the first to enter the stadium, paraded in wearing white gloves with rainbow colored fingers.
Although some activists had predicted gay athletes and their supporters might wear “P6” or rainbow pins during the Olympics, there were very few clear signs of anything gay on the televised Olympics.
Openly gay snowboarder Cheryl Maas of The Netherlands took a fall on one of her runs and, after she stood the obligatory few minutes in front of a “Sochi 2014” wall to await her score, she walked away holding her gloved right hand in front of the camera. Because Maas is gay and the glove had what appeared to be a unicorn and a rainbow-colored target on it, some interpreted that as a moment of LGBT visibility.
Another openly gay athlete (there are only seven among the 2,800-plus athletes competing in Sochi), Austrian ski jumper Daniela Iraschko-Stolz reportedly told reporters, “I don’t think it’s a good idea to make protests here, no one cares.”
“I know Russia will go and make the right steps in the future,” said Iraschko-Stolz about the country’s anti-gay laws, according to an Associated Press report, “and we should give them time. I am here as a sportswoman. I always say I’m together with my woman now and don’t have any problems, not in Russia or with the Austrian federation. ”
One of the more prominent televised moments of visibility came in the form of two commercial advertisements for Chevrolet.
One showed a large number of different family configurations, including what appeared to be a two-dad family and a two-mom family. The ad says that, “While what it means to be a family hasn’t changed, what a family looks like has.” Then it offered Chevy Traverse, “for whatever shape your family takes.” The company also aired a second commercial showing happy life moments, including a gay male couple at a wedding ceremony.
Three sponsors of the IOC also issued statements of opposition to Russia’s anti-gay laws –AT&T, DeVry University, and the Chobani yogurt maker.
Some media have suggested Russian President Putin might have been delivering a “message” at Friday’s opening ceremony in his choice of former Olympic skater and current Member of Parliament Irina Rodnina to help light the Olympic torch. While at first glance, Rodnina’s credentials seemed to make her an obvious choice for the task, news media soon picked up on her notoriety.
As the UK newspaper, The Guardian, reported last September, Rodnina last fall posted a photo on Twitter that showed President Obama and the First Lady together and, because the president had a big bite of food in his mouth, his face was oddly contorted. Rodnina photoshopped a banana onto the photo’s foreground, making it appear the president and First Lady were mesmerized by the prospects of a banana.
In reaction to that photo, U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul last September published a message on Twitter, calling Rodnina’ post “outrageous.” The Guardian story at the time noted that “Racism is rife in Russia, and black football players often face racial abuse involving bananas.”
“It is difficult to see the image as anything but racist,” said a Chicago Tribune article Sunday.
Dmitriy Chernyshenko, head of the Russian Olympic committee, said his “panel” chose Rodnina and did so solely because of her Olympic legacy.
And it was also difficult to figure out what Putin and Russian organizers were trying to say Friday night, if, in fact, Putin was controlling all the messaging at the opening ceremony.
A singing group widely identified as a “pseudo-lesbian” band – called T.a.T.u. (which reportedly means ‘this girl loves that girl’, according to the Daily Beast) — performed a song called “Not Gonna Get Us” –reportedly about two school girls in love—as the Russian team marched to their seats at the opening ceremony. The two female singers walked onstage hand in hand.
And it probably startled many in the speed skating arena when the iconic gay anthem “YMCA” started coming through the public address system Saturday. According to Associated Press, the stadium crowd was “dancing and hopping to the disco hit,” which was among 4,600 songs approved by the Sochi organizers for use during the Games.
Meanwhile, off-camera, and covered by some media, was the detention and arrest by police of more than a dozen people in Moscow and St. Petersburg, 1,200 miles away from Sochi, on Friday for holding up rainbow flags and a banner that said “Discrimination is incompatible with the Olympic Movement.”