Eleanor Margolis: sapphic cynic at large

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At the Sochi Winter Olympics, the Russian establishment is trying to out-gay the gays

Russia has given its Olympic volunteers a rainbow-coloured uniform. This is a country that, as of last year, has criminalised homosexuality and banned its citizens from publically brandishing the Pride flag. What's really going on here?

Russia's Olympic volunteers in their rainbow tracksuits. Photo: Getty

This Friday marks the official opening of the Sochi Winter Olympics. In the build up to the most controversial Games in decades things have started to get more colourful than an orgy at the Crayola factory.

When I caught my first glimpse of the Russian volunteers’ uniforms on the news, my immediate response was a majestic snort. The generously hued Sochi tracksuit looks like a melange of multi-coloured pavement scrapings, left in the wake of a particularly flamboyant Gay Pride parade.

“Oh the irony,” I thought, “The sweet, gaudy as pixie snot irony.”

A rainbow-coloured uniform in a country that, as of last year, has criminalised homosexuality and banned its citizens from publically brandishing the Pride flag initially seemed like a hilarious cock-up on the Russian government’s part. But then it hit me; Russians aren’t thick. They invented vodka and nihilism, for fuck’s sake. So if they’re going to dress their Olympic volunteers up in ludicrous rainbow garb, it has to be for a damn good reason.

The Kremlin’s official line on gay rights protests at the Games is that their perpetrators won’t be prosecuted. Visitors to Sochi are free to wave rainbow flags, wear Gay Pride badges, etc. But in slopping every colour perceivable to the human eye onto the volunteers’ uniforms, it seems that the Sochi masterminds are peacockishly trying to draw attention away from all colourful displays of dissent. Essentially, the Russian establishment is trying to out-gay the gays. What we have here isn’t so much a whitewash as a red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet-wash. And thus began the 2014 Rainbow Wars, the history books probably won’t say.

In October last year, the Germans premiered their similarly shouty athletes’ uniform. While the Russians are trying to throw dissidence into a colour fug, Germany is still insisting that their polychromatic little number isn’t intended as a protest. So I suppose we’re meant to believe that Team Merkel showing up to Sochi dressed as anthropomorphic unicorn turds is just a sehr komisch coincidence.  

Last month, Vice’s excellent documentary Young and Gay in Putin’s Russia revealed that gay rights activists in Russia are overwhelmingly opposed to an international Sochi boycott. As the campaigners argue, such action would actually put gay Russians at risk of retaliation and do little to draw attention to human rights abuses. What they want instead is for the Winter Olympics to be used as a platform for protest. And when all eyes are on their country, why not? But as the Russian authorities are attempting to drown out the gay and the likes of the Germans are refusing to take sides, the likelihood of Sochi being used to its full, government-bashing potential is looking low.

I’m hoping that, over the next few weeks, I’ll be proven wrong. If, between the skiing and general farting about in snow, the international LGBT community manages to make some noise, I’ll happily sprinkle some hundreds and thousands over my words, and eat them. Meanwhile, the campaign for worldwide gay rights continues at home, with an upcoming protest outside the Russian embassy in London on Valentine’s Day.