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Anti-gay legislation sends undercurrents of strife through Olympics

As the 2014 Winter Olympics approach, reaction to Russia's controversial anti-gay legislation continues to resemble a Cold War figure skating dispute.

While the U.S. and many European nations have judged the 8-month-old law intolerable, the response of Russian officials has frequently been difficult to fathom.

Just last week, for example, Sochi Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov told an interviewer there were no gays in the city that will host the Games.

"It's not accepted here in the Caucasus where we live," Pakhomov said. "We do not have them in our city."

That assessment surprised many, including his political rival, Boris Nemtsov, who noted that the Black Sea resort town had several gay bars.

"How do they survive?" Nemtsov asked. "Why are they not bankrupt?"

The Russian mayor's remarks further inflamed LGBT and human rights groups worldwide. They have loudly voiced their objections to the June law that prohibits "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" to children.

During an interview two weeks ago, Russian president Vladimir Putin informed gays and lesbians that while they were welcome in Sochi, they should "leave our children in peace."

All of this has led to an international uproar over the policy as well as promises by activists to disrupt Russia's first Winter Olympics.

In what's widely been viewed as a rebuke inspired by the recent law, President Barack Obama has vowed not to attend Friday's opening ceremonies, making it the first time an American leader will have missed since 2000.

Instead, the Americans' in-your-face delegation for the event will include three openly gay former athletes -- tennis' Billie Jean King, figure skating's Brian Boitano and hockey's Caitlin Cahow.

"I had no idea who was going to be on the delegation," Boitano said last month, "and they certainly didn't tell me the message that the president was sending. Then I read that he was making a statement about diversity ... and I thought, 'Wow, this is an opportunity.' "

Gay activists, hoping to use the Olympics as a forum for their cause in much the same way black power advocates used the '68 Games in Mexico City, plan protests in Sochi during the event's 2 1/2-week run.

Putin originally announced that he would permit no demonstrations. Eventually, the Russian president relented, but said any protests will be confined to locales determined by the Interior Ministry.

The U.S. Olympic Committee has discouraged protests by its athletes in Sochi, but some, like figure skater Ashley Wagner, have vowed to express opposition to the policy.

"They're there to compete," Scott Blackmun, the USOC's CEO, told ESPN last week. "They're not there to talk about their politics or their religion or anything else. So for us, really, we just want the attention focused on our athletes and their great competitions.

"We're hoping that our athletes feel very comfortable speaking their minds before they go the Games. But when they get to the Games, that's really the time to focus on sports."

Though Putin said he will welcome gays and lesbians to Sochi, the U.S. State Department has cautioned visitors who might want to flout the law that they could face fines, jail, or deportation.

Last month, 27 Nobel laureates wrote a public letter to Putin condemning Russia's action.

"We hope that by expressing opposition to the new legislation it might be possible to encourage the Russian state to embrace the 21st century humanitarian, political, and inclusive democratic principles," they wrote.

The LGBT community in Russia has not been silent either.

Last week, a gay Russian was arrested after unfurling a rainbow flag as the Olympic torch relay passed through his hometown, 500 miles north of Sochi.

"Hosting the Games here contradicts the basic principles of the Olympics, which is to cultivate tolerance," Pavel Lebedev told the Associated Press.

While he was jailed immediately, it's not known whether Lebedev remains incarcerated.

Meanwhile, Olympic sponsors are increasingly under pressure from LGBT groups for their support of the Sochi Games.

One gay magazine that had nominated Coca-Cola for its brand of the year award has dropped the soft-drink company from consideration.

While Putin appears willing to back off on enforcement during the Games, what happens afterward remains a concern for many.

"The fear I have is that the day after the Olympics conclude, the global attention will move on from Russia," Jessica Stern, the executive director of the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, told The Atlantic magazine. "And the laws are still in place, and people are still unsafe."

(c)2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Distributed by MCT Information Services


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