March 3, 2014 | by Michael K. Lavers
Louganis: Russian Open Games marred by disruptions
Gay News, Washington Blade, Greg Louganis

Retired Olympian Greg Louganis last December took part in a Russia briefing on Capitol Hill. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

Retired Olympic diver Greg Louganis is among those who participated in the Russian Open Games that ended in Moscow on Sunday.

Louganis, who competed in a table tennis tournament during the five-day event that drew more than 300 LGBT athletes from Russia and other countries that include the U.S. and Sweden, arrived in the Russian capital early last week after he received a last-minute visa.

He left Moscow on Feb. 28.

The gay retired Olympian who won two gold medals during the 1998 Summer Olympics in Seoul and in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles participated in a Feb. 27 press conference at a Moscow gay nightclub that opened the Russian Open Games. A bomb threat forced him and organizers to speak with reporters outside in the building’s parking lot.

The Washington Post reported the U.S. Embassy hosted a basketball game between participants and diplomats on Sunday after a smoke bomb disrupted a tournament two days earlier.

Louganis, who learned he was living with HIV six months before competing in Seoul, told the Blade police escorted him and more than 30 other Russian Open Games participants out of an ice rink on Feb. 27 after someone reported a group of “strange people” had arrived. He said they had simply gone to the rink for what he described as a “group workshop” about “teaching us some skating skills.”

“They made it clear we were not welcome,” said Louganis. “Just the looks of disdain as we were escorted off the premises was just really concerning.”

Louganis told the Blade he was sending e-mails from a coffee shop across the street from the building where the Russian LGBT Network was holding a panel after the ice rink incident when Konstantin Yablotskiy of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation, which organized the Russian Open Games, said the event had been interrupted. He said Yablotskiy told him somebody suddenly turned off the lights and told them the venue would have to close if they didn’t leave.

Louganis said Yablotskiy and Elvina Yuvakaeva of the Russian LGBT Sport Federation told only one person about venues they had secured for various competitions – and this person escorted participants to them after they met at a Metro station. Louganis told the Blade that Yablotskiy told him to take precautions that included not saying anything specific during telephone conversations because he was sure “others were listening.”

“It was a very interesting environment,” said Louganis, noting he had last been to Moscow more than a decade before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. “It kind of reminded me of that; that everything was watched, was observed, scrutinized.”

The Russian Open Games took place a few days after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi ended.

The Kremlin’s LGBT rights record that includes a 2013 law banning gay propaganda to minors overshadowed the Sochi games. Organizers of the Russian Open Games did not allow anyone under 18 to participate – they also included a disclaimer on its website that read “the information on this site is intended only for the use of those aged 18 and over.”

St. Petersburg Legislative Assemblyman Vitaly Milonov, who spearheaded his city’s gay propaganda ban that inspired the law Russian President Vladimir Putin signed last June, denounced the Russian Open Games. The lawmaker also urged Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin to cancel the event.

Yuvakaeva last week said four venues that had initially agreed to host the games abruptly cancelled their agreements. The hotel where the Russian LGBT Network had planned to hold its forum also cancelled the scheduled event.

Louganis told the Blade he had not heard about the 10 LGBT rights advocates who were arrested near Moscow’s Red Square on Feb. 7 as they tried to sing the Russian national anthem while holding rainbow flags before the Sochi opening ceremony. He said a gay couple he met in the Russian capital told him about the arrests – and the officers who reportedly beat and threatened to sexually assault the activists while inside a local police station.

St. Petersburg police on Feb. 7 arrested Anastasia Smirnova and three other LGBT rights advocates as they tried to march with a banner in support of the campaign to add sexual orientation to the Olympic charter’s non-discrimination clause.

“I really wanted to be a participant [in the Russian Open Games] just to get an objective view rather than the propagandized vision of what it was in Sochi,” Louganis told the Blade, discussing Russia’s LGBT rights record. “Sochi I heard was wonderful and everybody was bragging and the media was over-reacting and all of this. You don’t know until you’re there.”

Louganis was also in Moscow as Russian troops prepared to take control of Ukraine’s Crimea region amid outrage from the U.S. and Europe.

The Kremlin on Monday reportedly issued an ultimatum that demanded the surrender of the crews of two Ukrainian warships on the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based. Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to arrive in the Ukrainian capital on Tuesday as tension between Washington and Moscow continues to escalate after the country’s Kremlin-backed president went into hiding following the deaths of dozens of anti-government protesters in Kiev.

“We were aware of what was going on with the borders being enforced,” said Louganis. “There was talk of invasion. There was this thing going on, but we were just focused on the event… with every turn we had to adjust and adjust and adjust. We were constantly trying to adjust to the immediate present and trying to make the Open Games as successful as we possibly could.”

Louganis added he was repeatedly impressed with the games’ organizers’ resilience against efforts to disrupt events.

“It was very impressive,” he told the Blade. “It was also very eye-opening for me from my personal experience.”

Michael K. Lavers has been a staff writer for the Washington Blade since May 2012. The passage of Maryland's same-sex marriage law, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the burgeoning LGBT rights movement in Latin America and the consecration of gay New Hampshire Bishop V. Gene Robinson are among the many stories he has covered since his career began in 2002. Follow Michael

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