Putin’s homophobia centre stage at expense of Winter Olympics

Elements of Russian society painfully backward when it comes to sexual politics

President Vladimir Putin: A lot more going on than mere cynical political opportunism. Photograph: Reuters

President Vladimir Putin: A lot more going on than mere cynical political opportunism. Photograph: Reuters


Spaces like this work best when fuelled by outrage or indignation. But it’s difficult to be apoplectic about Vladimir Putin’s assurance that bringing your homosexuality to Sochi for the Winter Olympics in a couple of weeks will be okay just so long as you stay away from children.

Yes, it’s outrageous. And frightening to think that such a mindset has access to nuclear codes, but it’s also pathetic on so many levels that indignation has to mix with a smidgen of pity.

Clearly substantial elements of Russian society are painfully backward when it comes to sexual politics, large enough for its president to milk those prejudices for all their worth. However, it’s also glaringly obvious that there has to be a lot more than mere cynical political opportunism going on here with Putin’s legislation regarding “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations”.

Those homoerotic clips of Putin riding horses, wrestling bears, wading rivers, buff and plucked, all that goose-stepping uniformed macho posturing designed to appeal to those Ivan Joneski’s out on the steppe throwing Freddie Mercury shapes in front of the mirror, well, they all make sense now. Come on, it’s obvious. Vladimir’s just a big old queen.

There, I said it. You know it’s true, everyone does. How can he not be? Nobody could be that uptight about something as mundane as the who, or what, someone chooses to rub their genitals against for gratification without there being a whole lot of repression going on. And Russians know a thing or two about repression.

Closet queen
We ain’t talking closet here so much as a sizable

walk-in wardrobe with sliding doors leading to a pink projection room playing non-stop re-runs of Spartacus, Ben Hur and Top Gun on a 24-hour loop. We’re talking someone trying way too hard and someone who clearly doesn’t realise quite how ridiculous he looks in the process.

This would be just sad, if purging thoughts of playing comrade pin the cushion was just a personal torment played out in private. We all know upright pillars of the community with a default setting of finger-wagging sanctimony who are basically aching to swing by the heels from a cellar wall in front of somebody large and gimpy.

However Putin – in reality an effective dictator of more than 150 million people and a country with a land mass covering more than 10 per cent of the globe – gets to tease out his sexual hang-ups on a world platform, exerting a blinkered, dystopian vision that is an affront to anyone who believes that what goes on in private between consenting adults is nobody else’s business; and certainly not of any government pandering to Neanderthals.

The long-term impact on Russian society as it struggles to deal with this is unknowable. Just as it is painfully predictable that the short-term impact on the 2014 Winter Olympics will be that the principal focus will not be on any ski slope or rink. Once again the sport will get pushed aside by the politics.

Regretting that isn’t some lame delusion that the two might somehow be divisible. Moreover, it is certainly not a desire that the fundamental issue which will continue to affect Russian society long after the athletes have left the Caucasus be put on some long finger, out of sight and out of mind.

It is a weariness at how distorted the balance between sport and politics almost inevitably becomes when sporting suits get to exert their muscle.

You would think by now the message would have got through that awarding a country a major sports tournament inevitably brings political implications. It’s like diplomatic marriage: you ain’t just marrying the person, but their family too.

Ethical dimension

However, it clearly hasn’t: or at least the suits don’t want to acknowledge it, most likely because it’s in their own interests not to. This winter it’s Putin and his hang-ups, but what awaits us in the summer at the World Cup in Brazil?

And as if hosting one sporting event in a country where almost a third of the population live below the poverty line might be ethically dubious, what could possibly be questionable about giving that country’s capital the summer Olympics in two years’ time?

By 2018 we’ll be back in Russia again – and all its attendant social nightmares – for the World Cup. And let’s not forget how four years after that we will gather to watch football’s greatest tournament in a Middle-Eastern desert in deepest winter. What could possibly go wrong?

Maybe it will require some dreadful disaster to force bureaucratic attention away from the bottom line and focus instead on the responsibility of those in charge to award major sporting events to countries and cities that can guarantee the official piety about inclusivity and fairness isn’t just cant, not to mention guaranteeing fundamental standards of safety for those venturing there.

Financial reality means the obvious solutions – give the summer Olympics a permanent home in Athens, put the winter Olympics somewhere cold. And allow the World Cup to be permanently played somewhere where it rains more than once a decade – are not on. But it surely isn’t asking too much for priority to be given to functional, liberal democracies in possession of gaps between rich and poor that are not an affront.

No doubt there will be howls about moral and cultural relativism in response to that. But if a country can’t allow its sexually-repressed leaders to be called on their bullshit without fear of banishment, then it surely isn’t up to hosting the world.

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