Putin, Sochi, and “You Can Play”

APTOPIX Russia Gay Rights
BULLIED BUT UNBOWED–Smug Russian police stand by as courageous young LGBT activists recover from a beating.

Now that the National Hockey League has finally confirmed it is sending its players to the Sochi Winter Olympics—and just weeks after Russian president Vladimir Putin unveiled some of the most homophobic laws on the planet —the obvious question for many is: so what will happen to the “You Can Play” project, and the NHL players who have endorsed it, some of whom will presumably crack the line-ups of Team Canada and various other participating nations?

“You Can Play” is a public awareness campaign aimed at promoting respect for lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans athletes and fostering gay-straight alliances within both amateur and professional sporting environments. Inspired by the anti-homophobia work of the late Brendan Burke, son of irascible NHL general manager Brian Burke, the project is run by Brendan’s brother Patrick. In the last couple of years, it has signed up an impressive roster of NHL players to its cause: Joe Thornton, Dustin Brown, Ryan Kesler, Rick Nash, Daniel Alfredsson, Jordan Eberle, Shea Weber, Carey Price, Steven Stamkos, Brian Campbell, Henrik Lundqvist, and Zdeno Chara, to name just a dozen. The National Hockey League itself, rather belatedly, announced a partnership with You Can Play this past April.

So how does all this play into Vladimir Putin’s new scheme to turn Russia into the most publicly homophobic country on the planet, competing with the likes of Uganda, Jamaica, Iran, and Uzbekistan? What makes the new law particularly loathsome and obscene is the arrogance with which Putin has raised his middle finger to countries that have passed human rights legislation protecting sexual minorities. Despite spending more money ($51 billion) than for any other Olympic Games in history, the Russian president is telling the world that he’d happily go into further debt if it meant that he didn’t have to taint the national treasury with pink tourist dollars. A step ahead of the travel boycott types, Putin is saying that he doesn’t want queers visiting his country anyway and would be happy if we all stayed home.

Here is what Olympic athletes, including NHL players, are empowering by signing up for the Sochi Olympics: a state that makes same-sex public kissing or even handholding illegal; a state where pro-gay speech, wearing rainbow suspenders, or coming out of the closet in an interview can lead to a prison sentence; a state that bans gay adoptions (especially by foreigners); and a state that will punish foreigners, with arrest and detainment for up to 15 days, plus a fine and deportation, for any public statement or action promoting gay rights or declaring equality. Of course, under such a thuggish regime, violence against gays and lesbians is not a crime but rather a favourite sport–a form of vigilantism for which the perpetrators are to be congratulated. No word yet on whether Putin plans to screen the Bolshoi Ballet for limp wrists.

The International Olympic Committee, in typical footdragging fashion, said nothing until weeks of outrage and public condemnation by Human Rights Watch finally resulted the other day in a rather lame commitment to “work to ensure” that the Sochi Games are conducted without discrimination. The NHL, of course, will say nothing. All Gary Bettman cares about is getting his players into Sochi, having a great tournament that raises the profile of his sport enough to earn back some of the costs of participation, and then getting his players the hell out of Russia as soon as possible and back to the regular season schedule. The NHL has a corporate relationship to the IOC and will make no public statement that undermines the latter’s role as the lead organization. But what about the players themselves? Will they be under a league-imposed gag law that prohibits them from saying anything that might embarrass their Russian hosts?

Of course, You Can Play is a Western concept and an organization that operates within the context of North American culture and sport. It does not have a mandate to advocate social change beyond the locker rooms and playing surfaces of countries whose dominant cultures already embrace sexual diversity. So theirs is not a message appropriate to the life-threatening environments of authoritarian regimes like Putin’s Russia. But it seems to me that social media, and the fact that the NHL is now a multi-national hockey league that includes Russian players, presents an historic opportunity for the Sochi Games. Russian players are noticeably absent from You Can Play’s endorsement list. Where are Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeny Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk on all this? Or Pavel Datsyuk? Or Sergei Gonchar? Do all Russians share their president’s Stone Age machismo and knuckle-dragging bigotry? That’s the message these players are sending, unfortunately, by remaining silent on the issue. If they do support gay rights, is it just a matter of manning up and saying so? Or do these overseas Russian celebrities face real threats and grave consequences from their government and society back home if they do? What kind of courage would it take to speak up?

Someone needs to step into the breach, to show some leadership on the issue. Most LGBT groups are urging a travel boycott, and there are good reasons for this. But what if we all just decided to do the Tilda Swinton thing, and show our rainbow colours on a grand scale? You know: visit Russia during the Sochi Games and congregate in such massive numbers that the arrests would make international news, lead to several diplomatic incidents, and expose Putin for the slimy, macho bore of a dictator that he really is?

I have plans that will keep me busy in another part of the world over the next year. But I am tempted. Really tempted.

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