In his six days at the Sochi Olympics, assistant wrestling coach Hudson Taylor saw a different situation from the one broadcast to international viewers during the Games.
“I went to this bar called Mayak, which is one of the only LGBT-friendly bars in Sochi,” Taylor said. “The establishment was tucked behind another building without any signs. The windows were all boarded. The door was bulletproof. The security was so extreme, and it kind of gave you a sense of what being LGBT in Russia must feel like.”
From Feb. 3 to 9, Taylor, who is the founder and executive director of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit dedicated to ending homophobia and transphobia in sports, was in Sochi to help organize LGBT activism against Russia’s anti-gay propaganda law, which bans “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations” as a part of a movement to protect Russian children.
“I was going to raise awareness about our Principle 6 campaign to speak out against Russia’s anti-gay propaganda laws and help work with Olympic athletes to find a safe but supportive way to speak out against the laws,” Taylor said.
During his trip, Taylor held interviews with the media and met with athletes who have expressed support for the Principle 6 campaign, a project started by Athlete Ally and fellow LGBT advocacy group All Out, and named after the clause in the Olympic charter that prohibits discrimination “on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise,” according to the document.
On its website, Principle 6 lists over 50 past and present Olympians who have signed on to support the campaign, including Australian snowboarder Belle Brockhoff, Australian bobsledder Heath Spence, and Canadian snowboarder Alexandra Duckworth, who are all competing in Sochi.
The Principle 6 campaign was founded so that athletes could avoid breaking Rule 50 of the charter, which prohibits any kind of “demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda.” According to Tanya Domi, an adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, each country’s governing Olympic body was warned that any such demonstration could result in disqualification.
“The incentive to do anything, to speak out in any way, including with symbolic speech like flags, or painting your fingernails in rainbow colors, or anything like that could actually jeopardize you losing your ability to compete and being sent home,” she said.
“By supporting Principle 6 ... athletes can talk about these issues in a way that is not based on politics, but on principles,” Taylor said.
Taylor said he knows of some athletes who are weighing the risks of making an attention-grabbing gesture.
“They’re obviously also getting counsel from teammates and coaches and agents on what is the right tone to strike,” he said. “But certainly there’s an interest to make that type of statement.”
He added that while athletes could not speak out in Sochi without violating Rule 50, they could take to social media. Several did before the Games, like Canadian bobsledder Justin Kripps, whose website was blocked in Russia after he tweeted a picture of him and his teammates in their underwear.
The possibility of foreign athletes becoming advocates for LGBT rights takes on even more weight in light of the recent crackdown by the Russian government on domestic activists.
“The ability to speak out and criticize government, whether you’re gay, whether you’re a human rights activist, whether you’re an environmental activist, has really become increasingly limited,” Domi said, citing the arrest of 14 LGBT activists in St. Petersburg on the Games’ opening day and the sentencing of environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko to three years in a prison colony. She said the source of the crackdown on activism stem from Russian president Vladimir Putin.
“Mr. Putin is omnipotent in his power and his authority. Nobody challenges him,” she said. “What does he do to people who challenge him? He puts them into prison. Some of them actually die.”
Domi said the activism and attention brought by the Winter Olympics, while encouraging, will ultimately change nothing in Russia as long as Putin is in power.
“The media’s attention is so ephemeral that it’s just really not clear to me to what extent it would have a serious impact. Mr. Putin is not going to change,” she said. “The only way that I think Russia is going to change is if there’s a change in leadership. And until that day happens, it’s going to be very difficult for people.”
Taylor said he was similarly pessimistic about the prospect of the Sochi Games bringing long-term changes to LGBT relations in Russia.
“The one thing we’re all watching out for is what happens when the Games conclude because there’s going to continue to be a population of LGBT Russians who will continues to be affected by these anti-gay laws, attitudes, and prejudice,” Taylor said. “So while it may be safe to speak out now, I have no confidence that it will be after the Games end.”