SOCHI, RUSSIA – Let other mayors fret about potholes, taxes and sewers. This is an Olympic city, and here is the jeans-clad mayor striding into his office on a recent afternoon, fresh from a landslide, and not the electoral kind. When Sochi won the 2014 Games, life went epic.
First Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov and the mere mortals of Sochi were sent on a marathon of construction that clogged traffic and made heads throb. Then came the wrath of the gods. The city received nearly 50 cm of rain in September — six is the average for the month — setting off landslides requiring mayoral attention. Last week, the downpour was so heavy and roads were so flooded that the Emergency Situations Ministry deployed 1,800 workers to pump out water and shovel debris off city streets.
And now, the clash of civilizations.
President Vladimir Putin signed a law at the end of June prohibiting the propaganda of nontraditional sexual relationships among minors. It has been interpreted as banning gay pride parades — children might see them — and preventing any discussion of homosexuality among teenagers.
The law has made gay athletes and spectators fearful of discrimination, and even arrest, at the Olympics. And Thursday, as the International Olympic Committee coordinating commission made its last inspection tour of Sochi before the opening ceremony Feb. 7, its members added fuel to this particular flame. Russia, they said, was not violating Olympic principles against discrimination.
“The spirit of the games is awakening here,” said Jean-Claude Killy, chairman of the coordinating commission. Advocates in the West were furious. They had been lobbying the IOC to confront Russia over its policies, which they say encourage not only discrimination, but also violence toward gays and lesbians.
Looking past the piles of gravel and seas of mud, ignoring the deluge, the IOC declared the competition venues ready and offered Russia hearty congratulations.
On Sunday, the Olympic torch was lit in ancient Olympia, beginning its seven-day journey across Greece and on to Russia, which Putin calls a very special country, different from the West.
In a recent speech to international scholars, Putin had little patience for what he called political correctness. He accused the West of rejecting the values underlying Western civilization.
“They are denying moral principles and all traditional identities: national, cultural, religious and even sexual,” he said. “They are implementing policies that equate large families with same-sex partnerships, belief in God with the belief in Satan.”
Some lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and human rights activists have wondered whether an Olympic boycott is in order. Although President Barack Obama condemned the Russian law, he counseled against a boycott. Last week, after the IOC statement, various organizations said they will apply pressure to sponsors, which include Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, General Electric, Dow, Procter & Gamble, Samsung, Panasonic, Visa and others.
In Sochi, Pakhomov, the mayor, insists there is no cause for alarm. “We are a multiethnic and tolerant city,” he said. “We respect each other. We respect different points of views.”
The 53-year-old, a loyal member of Russia’s ruling United Russia party, said gays have nothing to worry about in Sochi. “It is their right to be as they are,” he said. “We just don’t want them to force their ideas on others.”
His city of just under 400,000 has 122 different nationalities, he said, and they all get along. He is unconcerned about how the law might affect the Olympics.
“I don’t worry about it,” he said. “In Sochi, people don’t worry about it. I’ve never heard of anyone having any issues.”
Later that afternoon, a 17-year-old sat in a cafe a few blocks from City Hall, discussing his life as a gay resident of Sochi. He had to drop out of school at the beginning of the year because someone hacked into his social media page and showed his classmates references to his sexual orientation.
He was taunted constantly. Kids would come to his classroom door and point at him, saying, “Can we see the gay guy?” He went to the school psychologist. “She told me, ‘Could you possibly change your sexual outlook?’ “
She told his mother he was abnormal. When he told his mother he was gay a few years ago, she told him he would burn in hell. Eventually, she accepted him.
He is better off than most, he said. “I have the nerve to struggle,” he said. Eventually, he was allowed to change schools.
The new law has made life worse for gays, he said. “Now Russian leaders express homophobic attitudes on TV,” he said. “It gives homophobes approval to beat up gay people. Now some who didn’t care about my sexuality before tell me it’s wrong.”
He doesn’t endorse a boycott of the games, but he would like to see pro-gay demonstrations during them. “I would like the whole world to know what’s going on here,” he said. “The authorities won’t allow it. They will make everything look smooth and quiet.”
In fact, Putin has banned demonstrations and public gatherings in Sochi from Jan. 7 until March 21.
The teen would like the world to know his name. He wants to stand up for himself and acknowledge who he is, as many do in the West. But now is not the time. There is a dark city block thick with bushes and shrubs between his bus stop and apartment building, a good place for an attacker to spring out. No, now is not the time to divulge his name.
“The mayor must live in some other Sochi,” he said.