“We haven’t been to a lot of the different games where somebody might try to flash a symbol,” said David Pichler, a U.S. diver who competed in the 1996 Summer Olympics and 2000 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and Sydney during a telephone interview from the Black Sea resort city. “I imagine we would have heard if there had been something like that.”
Pichler and Shawn Gaylord and Mary Elizabeth Margolis of Human Rights First arrived in Sochi on Feb. 6.
The group visited a gay nightclub on Saturday where they met with Andrei Ozyorny, a 24-year-old man who wrote to Sochi Mayor Anatony Pakhomov last month after he said there are no gay people in the Black Sea resort city. Pichler, Gaylord and Margolis also attended the finals of the women’s slopestyle on Sunday where Jamie Anderson won a gold medal for the U.S.
Pichler told the Blade that he, Gaylord and Margolis heard about an anti-LGBT protest that took place in Sochi before President Vladimir Putin and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach officially opened the games.
“[It] is kind of contradictory of the standards of the protest zone and everything that was set up,” said Pichler. “There was not anything negative or any type of action taken on them.”
Pichler told the Blade he had read about NBC’s decision to omit the portion of Bach’s speech during their broadcast of the opening ceremony in which he said it is possible for competitors “to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.” He said parts of the opening ceremony he saw on Russian television showed empty seats inside the stadium where it took place.
“It’s very disappointing to look around and see everyone coming out of the tunnel and seeing part of the stadium empty,” said Pichler. “That says a lot I think about the situation.”
Pichler spoke with the Blade on the same day that Hudson Taylor, founder of Athlete Ally, left Sochi where he had been highlighting efforts in support of adding sexual orientation to the Olympic charter’s anti-discrimination clause.
Pichler, Gaylord and Margolis met with Russian LGBT Network Chair Igor Kochetkov, Maria Kozlovskaya of “Coming Out” and Anastasia Smirnova in St. Petersburg on Feb. 6 before traveling to Sochi. St. Petersburg police the following day arrested Smirnova and three other LGBT rights advocates who tried to march over a bridge with a banner in support of adding gay-specific language to Principle 6 of the Olympic charter.
Police in Moscow arrested 10 LGBT rights activists who were singing the Russian national anthem in Red Square while holding rainbow and Russian flags just before the opening ceremony. Elena Kostynchenko told the Blade during an interview from the Russian capital on Saturday that officers threatened to sexually assault her and another female activist while in custody.
“It was interesting, just seeing what they’re going through and seeing how much they’ve taken on and how much they’ve had to deal with,” said Pichler as he discussed his meeting with Kochetkov, Kozlovskaya and Smirnova in St. Petersburg. “It’s impressive, and at the same time it’s very discouraging and very frightening to me to see what they have to go through.”
Putin told ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos last month those who protest his government’s LGBT rights record during the Olympics will not face prosecution under the country’s controversial law banning gay propaganda to minors that took effect last June. The IOC repeatedly said before the games that it had received assurances from the Kremlin that gays and lesbians will not suffer discrimination while in Sochi for the Olympics.
Gaylord said the St. Petersburg advocates told the group they recently saw police officers approach a woman in a subway station who looked “masculine in appearance, yelling things at her about the anti-propaganda law.”
Margolis told the Blade the Moscow Times last week published a short article about “how LGBT friendly the games were going to be.” She said the story also dismissed the international outcry over the Kremlin’s gay rights record ahead of the Olympics.
“Putin said it’s going to be very safe and we’re very excited to welcome all the athletes,” said Margolis, referring to the Moscow Times article. “It was just like a couple of paragraphs about it. It was real positive.”
Gaylord noted he did not see any LGBT-specific articles in the Russian newspapers he read during the group’s flight from the U.S. He told the Blade the only media reports he has seen about the St. Petersburg and Moscow arrests have been from American outlets.
Pichler added the group remains “kind of out of touch” because of the precautions he, Gaylord and Margolis have taken while in Sochi. These include not using Internet connections from computers that have Human Rights First and other personal information on them and purchasing temporary cell phones.
“We’re not getting to the information that we need to an extent because we haven’t had the resources since we came to Sochi,” said Pichler.
Pichler and Margolis are scheduled to return to the U.S. on Tuesday. Gaylord is scheduled to meet with Russian LGBT rights advocates in Moscow later this week before he travels back to D.C.