We are one week into the 2014 Olympic Games. I haven’t been paying very much attention, but I will say that the Russian police choir singing Pharrell Williams’ Get Lucky was hands down one of the most awkward things I’ve ever seen or heard in my life. 17- year old figure skater Michael Martinez, the first Filipino to make it to the Winter Games in 22 years, is a real Cinderella story. Martinez, along with Julia Marino, also a lone athlete representing her country and the first Paraguayan athlete to ever compete in the winter Games, embody the determination and skill that the Games are meant to celebrate.
Russia came under fire in mid-2013 for passing a law banning “propaganda of homosexualism.” The law is draconian, and people and organizations have faced harsh fines and imprisonment for promoting acceptance of LGBT people. When LGBT people are subjected to violent physical assault, laws should be implemented to protect them, rather than make them even more vulnerable.
It’s not only when it comes to this issue that Russia’s domestic policy is problematic. The country’s human rights record is abysmal. President Vladimir Putin has destroyed any semblance of independent media. Human rights activists such as journalists and lawyers are arbitrarily detained, violently assaulted, and murdered. Thousands of medical patients die from lack of access to palliative care. Racism and anti-Semitism in Russia are also rampant with Central Asians, Africans and people of African descent (yes, there are black people in Russia!), and Jews all facing discrimination, although the election of a black councilman in 2010 is promising.
For an event that is meant to celebrate unity in athleticism, having Irina Rodnina light the Olympic torch was a questionable move. Last year, Rodnina posted a picture of Barack Obama manipulated to show a white hand holding a banana in front of him, imagery that is steeped with historical, racist baggage. Instead of offering an apology, she fell back on the “freedom of speech” defense to justify her bigotry.
Still, the solidarity shown by athletes, from an on-podium kiss after winning an event, to painting nails in rainbow colors, show that despite the problems that exist, there are plenty who look forward to Russia evolving into a nation with full respect for human rights.