As Russia's first Games for homosexual and transgender athletes were set to open, the organizers have now faced unforeseen - and yet not quite unexpected - problems.
The Winter Olympics in Sochi were supposed to show the new, modern face of Russia. But at times it seemed that they would be overshadowed by various human rights issues, including Russia's anti-gay propaganda law, which was passed in summer of 2013.
Undeterred by the law, the Russian LGBT Sports Federation has planned for Russia's first LGBT (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) games to take place from February 26 through March 2 - just after the Sochi winter games and before the Paralympic Games in early March. The Open Games will take place in and outside of Moscow and are set to feature 330 participants from 11 countries and will see competitions in eight athletic categories, including badminton, basketball, futsal, skiing, swimming, tennis and volley ball, as well as cultural events.
The event has been registered with the Russian Ministry of Sports, but despite its officiality, yesterday's scheduled opening ceremony in an industrial zone was deserted - with journalists left standing in front of closed doors being closely guarded by police.
Cancellations and searches
On the day of the opening ceremony, the organizers have also received sudden cancellations from sports venues, hostels and hotels, with Russian participants being subjected to unwarranted checks by immigration officials and being asked to leave their accommodation. The participants of the Open Games are having doors slammed in their faces and the venues for the events are now unclear. Still, organizers are insisting that the sporting events will take place as scheduled from Thursday, February 27.
"It's difficult, it's very annoying - it's disappointing," Konstantin Yablotskiy, male co-president of the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, commented on the cancellations. "They gave very vague official reasons for it. We don't have any official explanation for why we were refused, some of the venue owners didn't tell us even - they said it's not telephone talk."
The problems the organizers encountered didn't completely take them by surprise, however, Elvina Yuvakaeva, the head of the organizing committee, told DW. "When we had our first festival in 2012, they just didn't let us into the boarding house we had rented," she said.
But Yablotskiy thinks the actions this time have gone further. "This seems to be a planned action," he says, referring to the sudden cancellations and searches by authorities. He adds: "Not only our organization has problems now. The Russian LGBT network was planning to have an interregional council - they also were refused by Hilton both to be [put up] and to hold meetings. And this all happened yesterday." He thinks it seems that "unofficially, someone from the authorities made the decision not to host our events."
Though the Russian LGBT Sports Federation is officially registered with the Russian Sports Ministry, it receives its funding from abroad. Not, however, because the Open Games are not following the recent anti-gay laws, which ban "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations" to minors, as Yablotskiy emphasizes. "We aren't breaking this law - because our event is not public, all the activities are organized in indoor venues. We have only invited adults, who are over 18 years old. So there's not any connection with this new law. "
But according to Yuvakaeva, the law can be quite broadly applied. "Any positive presentation of homosexuality falls under the law if it's impossible to control whether the audience is over 18." Organizations who contravene the controversial law can be fined up to one million rubles and be closed down for a period of 90 days. The Saint Petersburg politician Vitaly Milonov from Putin's United Russia party has already called on the Moscow authorities to ban the Open Games.
But the organizers insist that the Open Games are not meant as an outright protest of the infringement of gay rights in Russia. "We are not opposing, we are not protesting, we just want to send a positive message to our authorities, our society, to say that we are good people - we are [normal] people," Yablotskiy says.
According to the Russian LGBT Sports Federation, which has organized 50 sports events in Russia since it was founded in 2010, the Open Games aim to promote a healthy lifestyle in the LGBT community, as well as building tolerance for the community. In Yukaeva's view, much of Russia's homophobia is simply the result of a lack of knowledge. "People don't know anything about homosexuality, they only call on stereotypes," she said.
Despite the fact that the organizers are now having to look for new accommodation for participants and new venues to house the sporting events in the coming days, Yablotskiy remains hopeful that the Open Games will take place, and will fulfill their overall aim. After all, he says "sports can help to understand [bring understanding between] different groups of society."
Mikhail Bushuev also contributed to this article.
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