Putting a rainbow on Sochi’s games changes nothing

Some years ago, the Asian Women’s Advisory Service on Mare Street, Hackney had to close. In 2009, the rebuilding was bought up, transformed into an upmarket café (£6 per halloumi-and-avocado burger). Joking ostensibly at their own expense, the management named it the Advisory, retaining the old sign and furnishing walls with ironic citizens’ advice slogans. The Twitterati fumed on getting word of this last summer, and the owners – keen social media watchers, no doubt – agreed to dispense with the sign. The progressive Third Estate and countless commenters called this ‘A victory against hipster colonialism’, but victory would have been the Asian women’s centre’s survival. Taking the sign down was a mitigated loss, but only in aesthetic terms.

Why mention this? Because commentary on Sochi’s current winter games brings it to mind.

Courtney Caldwell, of the Cult of Courtney blog:

There’s been a lot of virtual ink spilled since the Olympics opening ceremony about the supposed LGBT themes that run amok in Sochi. Slate wasn’t the only outlet to write an article detailing just how “gay” the opening ceremonies were. But amidst growing rumbles from the progressive journalists about Russia’s increasingly backwards treatment of LGBT citizens (if you’ve not read Jeff Sharlet’s heartbreaking piece, go do so now. It’s lengthy, but worth it), many bloggers and Tweeters seemed excited by Greece’s supposed display of support for LGBT rights:

And who wouldn’t be excited? The fingers on their gloves appear to be the colors of the rainbow, a universal symbol for LGBT pride, which would seem to be a direct attack on Putin’s extreme stances on homosexuality.

. . .

The gloves are available for purchase, but the money goes straight to the Sochi Olympics[.] You see, those aren’t rainbow-colored fingers. Those are the colors of the Olympic Rings. What seemed at first to be a big gay “middle finger” to Putin, is nothing more than an expression of Olympic pride. But the story was believable, wasn’t it?

Not just the gloves, and not just Slate. Google’s rainbow logo, more undeniably an anti-homophobic gesture, drew the liberal commentariat’s applause, as did endless memes that echoed Slate by mocking every irony in sight. (‘Before you criticise Vladimir Putin for spending $51 billion dollars’, an admittedly amusing one from Red State Dems declared, ‘try forming a 51-strong male chorus without a single gay man.’)

Last-laughism fills the subtext here. If the whole thing’s a bit gay, we’re encouraged to console ourselves, Putin is showing himself up – his policies, once rainbow flags festoon the place, can’t be taken seriously; he and his friends have failed. Progressive forces have come out on top: sit back, bolstered, and watch the curling.

While we pat ourselves, chuckling, on the back, queer people are assaulted brutally on Moscow’s streets. Protesters like Anastasia Smirnova are arrested, as those police thought may cause ‘disruption’ were two years ago, ‘preemptively’, in London. Trans athletes, as Caldwell writes, face ‘regressive policies’ – not Russia’s, but the IOC’s – demanding they complete the forms, surgeries and drug courses deemed necessary in order to compete.

Those of us skeptical of boycotts hoped the games might magnify all this. Can they, if spectators’ impulse is to laugh at their own clever jokes about Olympic camp, as if once multicoloured gloves are worn, the day is won?

The Twitter mob who cheered the Hackney Advisory’s change of sign were as guilty as its owners were of reducing grim-faced struggles to marketing: a politics taking triumph in such superficial things is exactly that of the halloumi hipster. Mock the Olympiad’s medievalists and demagogues, by all means, but putting a rainbow on it gains us nothing.


  1. Al Dente says

    In a couple of weeks the Sochi games will be over but Russian homophobic laws will continue to be enforced.

  2. says

    Raising awareness and getting the message out isn’t the whole of the fight. Al Dente has it right. When we stop looking, what will happen to gays in Sochi, and in all of Russia?

  3. says

    Jason Thibeault (#2) –

    When we stop looking, what will happen to gays in Sochi, and in all of Russia?

    What happened after the 1936 Berlin olympics and its temporary “openness”?

    History often repeats itself.

  4. =8)-DX says

    The official colours of Sochi are basically rainbows, it seems to me more likely that the tactic is to drown out any potential protest in rainbow colours – I don’t think any other explanation is valid.

    Imagine if the Sochi colours were variants of blue – on flags, bunting, posters etc. And then imagine what a statement a single rainbow-coloured flag would be making – you couldn’t ignore it then.

    Even the Sochi olympics opening ceremony eerily echoed this tactic – from a plethora of colourful historic shows, to a disgusting* propaganda end dance piece – lovey-dovey m/f couples dancing, marrying, having two babies each (women jumping to prams) – a piece of soviet-era kitsch that said: One Man, One Woman, Marriage. Babies! That is modern Russia! I was itching for some of the dancers to switch places and make two same-sex couples, but I guess I can’t blame the dancers for that – no one likes to put their job/skin/freedom on the line.

    (*disgusting for its overt traditional-family message, happy families aren’t disgusting)


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