UC President Janet Napolitano said LGBT athletes appeared welcome at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games and praised Russian security efforts after leading the U.S. presidential delegation at last Friday’s opening ceremony.
Napolitano said in an interview with the Guardian that the level of security at the Olympics was “quite appropriate.” Despite Russia’s recent anti-LGBT laws, Napolitano added that she did not see any signs of LGBT athletes being made to feel unwelcome.
Her positive statements come after weeks of controversy regarding Russia’s terror threats, organized political opposition and other issues that threatened to overshadow the games.
Reflecting on Napolitano’s statements, Edward Walker, a UC Berkeley associate professor of political science and director of Eurasian and East European studies, said it is important to distinguish between the games themselves and the political environment in Russia.
“(The fact that LGBT athletes were welcomed at Sochi) does not mean that there is not a problem with homophobia in other parts of Russia,” Walker said. Last Thursday, the professor also gave a lecture on the various hurdles for success for the Sochi Olympics.
One such hurdle originates from a series of anti-LGBT laws that Russian President Vladimir Putin passed last summer that sparked international outcry. On the opening day of the Winter Olympics, four Russian LGBT rights activists were arrested in St. Petersburg for protesting.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all that there were signs of welcome mixed with signs of inhospitality (at the Olympics),” said Mel Chen, a campus associate professor of gender and women’s studies, who explained that countries act in complex ways at an international level.
In addition to nominating Napolitano, President Barack Obama appointed two openly gay athletes — figure skater Brian Boitano and ice hockey player Caitlin Cahow — to the presidential delegation.
Another issue was the country’s security going into the games — Walker agreed with Napolitano’s comments that Russia took extensive measures to prevent terrorist attacks. To counter terrorist attacks, Russia created a “ring of steel” and deployed 70,000 security personnel.
According to Walker, the biggest obstacle for Russia is its rapidly slowing economy, making the decision to host the Winter Olympics a sizable “risk” for the regime. According to Russian officials, the games are estimated to cost about $50 billion, which would make Sochi the most expensive Olympic Games in history.
“All of the spending highlights the profligacy and extravagance of the games,” Walker said, warning that the Olympics can also serve to highlight the various obstacles that Putin’s administration faces. “The opposition’s argument that this regime is wasteful and corrupt is going to sound more credible.”
Russia is currently making plans to to host the FIFA World Cup in 2018, which is estimated to cost approximately $20 billion.
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