The flags of 88 nations were paraded in Sochi on Friday as the Winter Olympics were officially opened, but the debate over the place of the rainbow banner continued to overshadow the most expensive, and controversial, Winter Games in history.
Anatoly Pakhomov, the mayor of the Russian city on the Black Sea, stoked the flames of Olympic controversy ahead of the arrival of the athletes by stating in an interview on the BBC’s Panorama that “there are no gays in Sochi.” When asked about purpose of the several gay nightlife venues in the city, Pakhomov fired back: “I am not sure, but I don’t bloody know any.”
Protests have been staged across the globe over Russia’s “gay propaganda” law but the International Olympic Committee and many national federations have cautioned against political displays by their athletes, some of whom have expressed their intention to defy both the hosts and the sporting authorities.
In an interview on Thursday with El Mundo, Spanish figure skater Javier Fernández weighed into the debate — and invited the scorn of gay rights groups — by suggesting that “homosexuals should keep it under wraps a little” in Sochi. “The Games are sport, not politics, and you have to respect the laws of the countries you visit,” said Spain’s best hope for a medal and the country’s flag-bearer at the opening ceremony.
Fernández apologized for his comments on Friday, saying that his words had been “misinterpreted.”
The wave of criticism toward the Sochi Games has proved galvanizing in Russia, where even some of the fiercest critics of President Vladimir Putin have gone on the attack. “Perhaps in Sochi everything is a disaster and nothing of any use or beauty has been achieved? Good heavens, I am not prepared to live according to the principle that ‘what is bad for Putin is good for us’,” wrote popular author Boris Akunin on his blog.
A huge deployment of security materiel has been put in place for the Sochi Games over concerns of a possible terrorist attack. Among the hardware in the area are anti-aircraft batteries, submarines, two US destroyers and drones.
For the athletes and everybody else involved in a Games that has even managed to rile animal rights activists over the decision to round up and shoot stray dogs, it will be a relief when the sport finally begins on Saturday.